Every kid who ever picked up an electric guitar or a microphone probably dreamed of being like Tim "The Ripper" Owens. The Ohio cover band singer and Judas Priest fanatic was tapped to be the new frontman for his idols when Rob Halford left in the mid-'90s, living out a rags-to-riches fantasy that sounds like it could only happen in the movies.
And now it has, albeit in highly fictionalized form. "Rock Star" takes place about a decade earlier, in an era when heavy metal was still flashy and openly hedonistic. Chris Cole (Mark Wahlberg) lives on the wannabe fringes of this world, repairing copy machines by day and performing with his tribute band by night. His ultimate ambition is to sound as much as possible like Steel Dragon, the rock icons whose posters have adorned his walls for years, but his bandmates get tired of simply covering other people's music and kick him out of the group.
At about the same time, Bobby Beers (Jason Flemyng), the lead singer of the real Steel Dragon, is being booted as well, and a tape of one of Chris' performances ends up in the hands of the group's guitarist, Kirk Cuddy (Dominic West). Impressed with Chris' ability to mimic Bobby's vocals, Kirk offers him the chance to become a real rock star, virtually overnight. Joined by his girlfriend/manager, Emily (Jennifer Aniston), Chris begins touring with Steel Dragon and learns the true meaning of the phrase "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll."
For most of its running time, "Rock Star" plays like a hair metal version of "Almost Famous," slightly dumbed down, but entertaining nonetheless. Director Stephen Herek ("Mr. Holland's Opus") and screenwriter John Stockwell ("crazy/beautiful") create some great comic moments early on, from a parking-lot rumble with a rival cover band to Chris' parents proudly selling hot dogs and T-shirts at their son's gigs. Even when the story shifts to the big leagues, there's a wit and energy that keeps it from getting bogged down.
Part of this can be attributed to the soundtrack, which contains both '80s classics and original songs that sound like '80s classics. The filmmakers hired several real musicians to work both behind and in front of the camera, including Sammy Hagar, Jason Bonham and Slaughter drummer Blas Elias. This collaboration may not have resulted in absolute realism, but it does give the movie a you-are-there quality that definitely adds to the fun. The rockers who appear in the picture are also decent actors, as it turns out, and are clearly enjoying the chance to send up their fabled excesses.
Wahlberg's gift for playing mildly clueless working-class heroes is put to excellent use here it's hard to imagine anyone else giving Chris this combination of intensity and everyman likability. Aniston doesn't fare quite as well, but it's hardly her fault, since Emily goes from being strong and funny to just another wounded, weepy girlfriend once Chris starts ignoring her in favor of eager groupies. It's a sad waste of what could have been a great character.
Emily's fate is actually emblematic of the film's last third or so, when Herek and Stockwell abruptly call the cops and shut down the party. As Chris gets pulled deeper into the wild life, everything begins to fall apart, and "Rock Star" turns into yet another cautionary tale about the perils of fame, the importance of being true to yourself, the value of true love, blah, blah, blah. It's a trite, boring way to end the movie, and it all happens so quickly it doesn't even make any sense.
Stardom certainly has plenty of dramatically interesting pitfalls, but wouldn't it be nice if, just once, somebody made a movie where a person gets famous and likes it? The real Ripper Owens is still a member of Judas Priest, having apparently adjusted to his new lifestyle reasonably well. If only the makers of "Rock Star" had followed the actual story, instead of making it even more Hollywood-friendly than it already was.