|Photo by Claudette Barius|
Good enough, funny enough, sweet enough — Rock Star is the sort of movie you don’t feel crummy about the next morning. Its pleasures are minor but guiltless and, for all the black leather, slashing guitars, and billows of teased and tortured hair, pleasingly old-fashioned. The story itself, set in the mid-’80s, is as old as the Hollywood Hills — a hard-luck kid, a would-be somebody, makes the leap from fandom to stardom and, much as Judy Garland did when she became Mrs. Norman Maine, discovers celebrity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Here, the star that’s born is Chris Cole (Mark Wahlberg), a Pittsburgh native who begins fronting a tribute band called Blood Pollution only to end up singing for his idols, the band known as Steel Dragon. In a smog of fame, Chris becomes Izzy, a cockney-inflected artiste who greedily chugs the nectar of his metal gods: He does a lot of dope, buys the Batmobile and frolics in an Elysium of bountiful, commitment-free pussy. Nobody overdoses or weighs the follies of excess as they did in Cameron Crowe’s period rock drama, Almost Famous, and neither does the film pretend that it’s trying to say anything deep. It’s metal, not heavy.
Inspired by Ripper Owens’ journey from a Judas Priest tribute band to fronting the actual group, the film was written by John Stockwell, who most recently directed crazy/beautiful, and directed by Stephen Herek, who, while best known for the Academy Award catnip of Mr. Holland’s Opus, staked an early claim on pop history with Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The pairing of writer and director here is probably a happy accident, and wouldn’t be worth mentioning if it weren’t for the fact that Stockwell and Herek’s solid, workmanlike collaboration recalls what made the old studio system function so well. For all the hosannas sung to the studios’ once-and-future auteurs, it was the industry lifers who were the foundation of Hollywood’s golden age. One of the worst legacies of our cult of the auteur is that it’s given too many bad filmmakers license to muck up decent stories with all sorts of lousy style — instead of their imprint, they leave a mess. At their best, guys like Stockwell and Herek (and, who knows, maybe their producers too) don’t leave many marks, they let a movie be, which is why Rock Star works as well as it does.
That and good casting. Nicely embellished with authentic metal musicians such as Jason Bonham, Jeff Pilson, Zakk Wylde and Blas Elias (Sammy Hagar and Twiggy Ramirez contributed songs), the film also features fine non-musician support by the likes of Timothy Olyphant and Mike Leigh regular Timothy Spall. Even Jennifer Aniston, as Chris’ main squeeze, isn’t half-bad as the Steeltown girl with the Malibu tan. Still and all, the film’s low-voltage charm and professional gloss wouldn’t amount to much without the confident, infectiously good-natured presence of its irresistible star. Having ascended to the pop stratosphere with a Top 40 anthem and strategically tight, white underwear, Wahlberg legitimized his pop-icon status by appearing in one of the best American films of the last 10 years. If Boogie Nights gave him credibility onscreen, what is increasingly clear with each of his successive films is just how much the actor gave Paul Thomas Anderson’s porn epic in return. Neither beautiful nor ugly, with a face that seems somehow unfinished and a body of almost lapidary musculature, Wahlberg radiates a crude sort of tenderness, a vulnerability that seems almost physical, as natural and naked as skin.
Most young, male movie-star hopefuls “do” sensitive as if they were wearing a James Dean suit. With calculated slouches and studied humility, they burrow into narcissism, too often leaving co-stars and audiences behind. Wahlberg couldn’t be less of a peacock. For all his early fame and billboard infamy, onscreen he evinces a remarkable lack of guile — he’s assured, not arrogant, with an earnest, eager-to-please affect that can seem almost feminine. He aims to please whether he’s uncoiling a rubber snake from his pants as Boogie Night’s Dirk Diggler or playing second fiddle to George Clooney in The Perfect Storm. One of the few memorable details of that overblown sea story was the way Wahlberg seemed perfectly willing to stand outside the aura encircling Clooney, who, as directed by Wolfgang Petersen, never managed to shake off his big-star luster. Clooney was the star of the film, but Wahlberg — shorter, less perfect, nervous, even worried — was the little guy, the real guy, a Dodge rather than an import. Against expectation, Wahlberg has turned into one of the most sympathetic and persuasive young actors around, and while his new movie remains safely, even shrewdly, in the middle of the road, he rocks.
ROCK STAR | Written by JOHN STOCKWELL | Directed by STEPHEN HEREK | Produced by ROBERT LAWRENCE and TOBY JAFFE | Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide