This is nothing new for Mark Wahlberg, in more ways than one. The former white-boy rapper plays Chris "Izzy" Cole, a wide-eyed slacker who out of nowhere finds himself the lead singer of his favorite band, Steel Dragon, and loses his way during a wild star trip. Wahlberg's done this before, really; his Dirk Diggler of Boogie Nights is essentially the same character. But instead of being known for one particular, um, instrument, Wahlberg's Cole has a set of pipes that help him graduate from "tribute band" to lead singer of the band he worships a little too much. And of course, thus begins an odyssey that takes him to the top and right back down again, and everyone's the better for it.
Which isn't to say that Rock Star isn't an enjoyable little romp. Either because or in spite of (I can't tell which) its unflinching sense of innocence, this half-parody, half-tribute to the heady days of '80s metal bands breezes along at a cheeky clip. Everyone's here to have some good, not-so-clean fun. The only lesson to learn here is to be yourself. Great. Now, please pass the groupies. The wit of Spinal Tap and the grit of The Decline of Western Civilization Part II is lost on this charmer.
Rock Star is based on the true story of Tim "Ripper" Owens, a salesman who in 1996 replaced lead singer Rob Halford in the aging metal band Judas Priest. Instead of really getting dirty and diving into the sleaze that permeates the world of rock -- as Oliver Stone did so gleefully in his fictionalized account of The Doors -- director Stephen Herek (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) has decided to play it pretty safe. Though he's a head-banger, Chris is essentially bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Only a few people -- his cop brother, his best friend and bandmate -- seem to mind the fact that he still lives at home, drifts through a boring day job, and can't stop playing somebody else's music instead of finding his own creative muse. His parents think it's great, while his squeeze and "manager" Emily (Jennifer Aniston, more girl next door than biker chick) supports him wholeheartedly.
Chris isn't a boozer, he's not full of himself, doesn't do drugs, or cheat on his girlfriend. Say, just what kind of a rocker is he, anyway? (And instead of the big, finger-in-the-socket hair jobs of most metal-heads of the '80s, Chris favors the rancid seaweed look.) Even cover-band musicians have a wild side, don't they? Not in the world of Stephen Herek, who puts more effort into poking harmless fun at the scene. Musicians swap makeup tips, ape guitar riffs to exhaustion, and diss fashion choices. The hilarious scene between Chris' band (Blood Pollution) and the other Steel Dragon tribute (Black Dragon) band is like the Jets and the Sharks meeting at an MTV video shoot.
Then, after getting booted out of his band for focusing too much on Steel Dragon covers and not on branching out, Chris gets the call. Steel Dragon lead singer Bobby Beers (Jason Flemyng) is getting kicked out of his band, too, and through some groupies the rest of the band has learned of Chris' dead-on impression. Quicker than you can say "Crazy Train," Chris (with Emily in tow) heads off to L.A. for an audition that leads to his dream spot: fronting his heroes.
From there, Rock Star couldn't be more predictable. Chris becomes a star, temptation looms everywhere, Emily feels alienated, and the band won't let him write his own material. And so on, and so on. But along the way, Herek does a creditable job of recreating the bigness of the arena-rock shows in which metal bands have always flourished, from the constant onstage posing and crowd pandering to the two-finger salutes and laser shots and stage-light explosions. And the music, conceived by Budd Carr, feels frighteningly authentic, even more so than Almost Famous' fictional band Stillwater. A steady diet of '80s rock from the likes of Bon Jovi and Def Leppard (with an ironic use of the Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime") doesn't hurt.
What little edge is in Rock Star seems channeled into the road manager Mats, played by Timothy Spall (Secrets and Lies), who just about steals the show. "Dream big; live the life," he wheezes through stained teeth to Chris, with more than a glint of weariness about the life he's chosen.
Otherwise, Rock Star doesn't sweat the heavy stuff, living up to its generic title with a quip there, a rock pose there. No rock opus; just a few simple, catchy riffs.