In ROCK STAR, Chris Cole (played sufficiently blandly by Mark Wahlberg) is a big loser with bigger hair and an even bigger voice. Through a freak turn of events he is hired by an international metal band (Steel Dragon, led by a big-haired Dominic West) and attains his dream of rock superstardom. Finding he is too vagina-whipped – and what a vagina! Jennifer Aniston’s! – for that level of adulation and its attendant financial, sexual and psychological abandon, he abjures that well-salaried and well-knob-polished position only to purvey his feeble artistry at the lowest possible echelon of the music business – the toilet pub level. For no pay.
Er – Wha?
From stadiums to Starbucks. Every musician in the world knows what is wrong with this Hindenburg Disaster of a plot arc. But when it comes to music, rock bands in particular, observers and listeners and drunken rednecks in pubs who ululate “Freebird!” at regular intervals selectively forget that we live in a world that revolves not because of orbital angular momentum – but because of capitalism. Though it is true that one can easily find a wannabe rock-n-roller in any given pub in any major city in the world who is plying his art for free, his goal is invariably to earn wodges of cash in the foreseeably-planned or far-fantasized future.
ROCK STAR’s denouement decimated everything it had painstakingly purveyed as Chris’s goal – fame and fortune. We are told to “work hard enough, want it bad enough and to follow our dreams” – yet when Chris attains his sought-after dream, he gives it up! It is implied that The Dream is a lie; that it holds no substance. He renounces everything for the sake of two things: his chick (any man who would place his chick before music is not a musician in the first place – nor is he a man), and because his band disallowed him creative input on their songs – oh, cry me a river, Tchaikovsky! Not only would this songwriting condition have been spelled out in his contract, even if he was too monkey to apprehend the copyrighting and royalty situation, his enviable position in the band – as prominent lead vocalist – would have lent itself to riding on the legacy of Steel Dragon to forge a solo career parallel to theirs. But no logic could save this movie once we saw the predictable character arc aiming towards the intersection of Hollywood and Whine.
After coercing us into rooting for the struggling Chris, the movie does an about-face and has Chris gutlessly back away from his own ambition – purely for the sake of “dramatic” impact. But who would this spineless ending appeal to?
ROCK STAR’s demographic of wannabe rockstars and starving musicians would have welcomed a story where the struggling kid becomes an international rocker – and stays an international rocker. I was heartily enjoying this portrayal of my past life of debauchery and devil-may-care enterprise (the inclusion of real-life rockers, Zakk Wylde and Jason Bonham as Steel Dragon members, and source music culled directly from my archived record collection only enhancing the nostalgia) – until the denouement insulted every musician who ever bashed his brains against the unyielding wall of the deaf music industry, and made the hero a puerile girly-man whose supposedly giant “dreams” were ultimately low-brow, middle-class, blue-collar mediocrity. And any real musician will tell you that a dork who gives up an international music career for a chick deserves every non-paying toilet gig he gets.
The last scene finds Chris puling his alternative angst to coffee house yuppies and the untalented, introspective “singer-songwriter” coterie. Next stop: Nursing Homes and Poetry Slams. If this is indeed Chris’s dream coalescing, it is more correctly a NIGHTMARE. I know. I’ve lived it. It is implied this dead-end gig is part of an epiphany or righteous road, whereby he now “creates art” on his own terms, when it is merely to whine his way back into his girlfriend’s panties.
One of the feature songs is Steel Dragon’s Stand Up And Shout, which the movie metaphorically achieves in spades during its first act. Soon enough, it devolves to Bowie’s livid shout of outrage: ”This ain’t rock and roll, this is – genocide!”
The writer of ROCK STAR, John Stockwell, was an actor in EDDIE & THE CRUISERS, which was an abject lesson on how NOT to write a rock and roll movie – and Stockwell seems to have learned that lesson well, showing us how good he is at NOT writing one.
Director Stephen Herek (who crafted a reasonable music-based movie with MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS, 1995), seems to capture the essence of 80’s Bighair Metal in all its garish androgyny. The song stylings are there, as are the leather pants, low-slung guitars, bovine attitudes and Big-Haired-and-Breasted bims. The parking lot argument over which tribute band is better of the two is a slice of history more hilarious, asinine and ridiculously true than any fiction could conceive. There is also a searing scene involving Aniston wearing a tantalizingly see-through dress, squirming the dance floor, while Nugent’s Stranglehold sensuously sweeps the soundtrack. All these things about ROCK STAR are commendable.
We soon realize – well, at least musicians soon realize – that the movie is merely the media portrayal of the 80s Metal Scene. Sure, this Scene existed, but underneath the glam-hamming and strumpet-humping, there was a struggling, starving reality, which ROCK STAR tried desperately to pin down. And failed.
Much was touted about this story mirroring that of real-life vocalist Tim “Ripper” Owens and his rise to prominence with metal gods Judas Priest, but though the story quantizes the basic events surrounding Ripper’s situation (singer of a Tribute Band ends up playing in the Real Thing), it captures none of the streetwise intelligence or truthful motivation of someone in Ripper’s position.
Instead, it gives us Marky Mark.
the high life of the lowlifes
Achieving a goal of living a shallow, yet sinfully entertaining existence doesn’t necessarily mean that your life is meaningless or unfulfilled. Your goal may very well have been to achieve a shallow, yet sinfully entertaining existence, with all your finances, food and fun taken care of by people whom you pay to manage those aspects. Who ever said that Life has to be stoic and boring and routine to be Meaningful?
Who even made the rule that “art” has to be created on your own terms to be fulfilling? We seem to forget that all the art of the Renaissance was commissioned by the church or state or royalty; if those shiftless artistes were allowed to create art on their own terms, we would never have had the Sistine Chapel, The Last Supper, The Ninth Symphony or St. Paul’s Cathedral.
People really do believe artists do not exist on the same capitalistic plane as the rest of the world. And here we hit the teeth-grinding fallacy of the public’s ignorance pertaining to rock and roll bands.
Must have been so easy to sell ROCK STAR as a feasible story, not only because the chick demographic would fall for the idiotic ending (where his girl returns to him for being so loyal to give up his dream for her puss), but also because – it’s not a “real” job, right? You just get up there and wangle your dangle and get paid and laid, right?
And when you fly to the Moon, you just sit there and they press a button and you fly upwards, right?
Over twenty years of performing has made me realize that non-musicians have no idea how musicians come to be onstage before their eyes, or how we fit into the fiscal scheme of things; they think we put this together just last night and arrived here two minutes before downbeat. (Like they believe radio personalities arrive at the studio one minute before airtime; or all it takes to be an actor is to memorize your lines.) What you see onstage is the culmination of years of studious learning, finger-bleeding practice, ear-numbing rehearsal, frustrating hustling, prodigal promoting, inspired recording, sleepless nights, jet-lagged days, thankless personnel coordination, futile sacrifice, abject poverty, deranged ambition, iron will, starving, stealing, creating controlled chaos and burning bridges; getting had, getting took, I tell you folks, it’s harder than it looks…
What we do, we do for arena love and blood money – we earned our bones long before you ever heard Freebird for the first time. This is a Real Job that no one gives us any credit for, because of pasty-faced karaoke dweebs who think they can sing, art-choking MTV who thinks it promotes music, AMERICAN IDOL douchebags who think they have talent, countless films portraying bands as mental deficients or portraying a ludicrous hyper-reality (like this film), and every joker who thinks he can play rock guitar after stumbling erroneously through Smoke On The Water using barre chords –
And you have the audacity to be outraged because I won’t play your insipid redneck request?
I got your Freebird right here, mongo!
the business of rock and roll
We know Chris is a Loser from the outset because his girlfriend is his manager. (Only musicians will understand that gag.) We are given many other indications that Chris is not real rock star material, first from his brother, who points out, “You don’t have any fantasies of your own – you fantasize about being someone else” (that being, Bobby Beers, vocalist of Steel Dragon, played by Jason Flemyng). Chris’s bandmate (Timothy Olyphant) also alerts Chris to the fact that, “You don’t know where Chris Cole ends and Bobby Beers begins.” The screenwriter seemed to be including these elements to illustrate how “dedicated” Chris is, but it only kept pounding home the fact that he was clueless. He is content to live off someone else’s laurels and had no interest in promoting original music. Later, when the songwriting bug bites him, he does another stupid thing and walks out on the biggest band on Earth…
When Chris initially walks out on his garage band, girlfriend Emily (Jennifer Aniston), states, “All the talent in the room walked out that door – the first rule in this business is to go where the talent is.” Uh, no. It’s a lot more complicated than that, honey…
It’s not about talent. Or looks. Or networking. Or even songwriting. All those aspects are part of a bigger picture that requires your willingness to morph to whatever the people who are advancing your salary tell you to morph into, to appeal to a pointed market and recoup your advance, staying economically viable by making a profit. For them.
After your initial success, if any, no matter how much “talent” you display with your bedroom songs and kitchen voice, you will be left with only your force of will to continue in the music business, or to succumb to its decadences or obstacles, and die a funky death.
Your employer will abandon you at the first sign of flagging sales or a better Business Model (read as someone even more willing than you to Do What He Say), and each successive deal, each contract you sign, each company you work, each funder and producer and agent will take slices of your integrity and humanity and leave you a husk of a prostitute. But by then, you won’t care. In LAST ACTION HERO, Arnold tells us he “won’t die till the grosses go down.” And when they do… your Q plummets, the scripts stop arriving, and everyone stops calling you “Mel baby.” Either you forge ahead with your force of will or you find a comfortable corner to die. Most people in the entertainment business are not so much afraid of dying alone, as dying unknown.
And we can’t even count the number of unnecessary blowjobs given in the name of the “who you know” fallacy. It’s not who you know, but HOW you know them. You can “know” scores of high-echelon stars, but if they are merely passing acquaintances, employers, fellow musicians, that gets you exactly nowhere. But know one high-level “executive” responsible for signing or development of acts at a major label; know him as a drinking buddy; know his sexual war stories, as he knows yours; know him so well that you can reach over his arm and scam a slice of his pizza with the familiarity of a room-mate – and your ticket to stardom is sealed. It’s about personal trust. No talent required.
The first rule in music is really: No One Cares About Your Music – Except YOU.
So keep your demos away from me. And stay away from my pizza.
dying young, living old.
“If you work hard enough, and want it bad enough, dreams do come true, so follow your dreams man, cos we all die young…” I don’t think even the cliché-churning screenwriter comprehends exactly how portentous those words are.
If you do not “make it” – become a financial success as a “rock star” – at an early age, your chances of becoming a success dwindle at an exponential rate as your age increases. That is, your marketability as a star – a product, a brand, an icon – is tied to your formative years. In the entertainment world, we all “die young”; spent by the time we are 30. But, you argue, the Eagles are still around, as are KISS and the Stones and McCartney – yet all those denizens of the upper reaches of the superstar stratosphere “made it” WHEN THEY WERE YOUNG. Only by doing so could they have guaranteed their current longevity. Pink Floyd and Madonna and Aerosmith all found themselves entrenched in the industry while still under 30.
The movie gives Chris many aspects of his stellar fame to be dissatisfied with – all of which are superficial. When you are solidifying your financial future and that of your potential family’s for generations hence, what piddling nuisance is it for a girlfriend to whine that you’ve “lost your way”? What triviality that your band does not allow you to write songs for the band? You are on a salary per night that the working class makes per quarter – what juvenile gripe that you feel unfulfilled? Is a 4 a.m. garbage route any more fulfilling? Try it. You might like it.
At one point, manager Timothy Spall tells Marky about a dead-end marriage he was in, and how he just walked away from it when he felt trapped. Marky uses this analogy to simply walk away from the band onstage one night in the middle of a gig, and let a kid from the audience take over (coincidentally enough – it’s Myles Kennedy (Alter Bridge, Slash), an awesome actual hard rock vocalist!). Contracts, lawyers, rehearsals, insurance, waivers, logistics of stage show and explosives and moving platforms be damned!
Emily decides she wants to own a place where hippie assholes converge to talk Sartre and pretend sophistication and industry clout – in other words, a coffee shop. The movie implies – insidiously, via Emily’s disparagement of Chris’s tour schedule – that stabilizing your base of operations is the path to successful business. But the rock band’s base of operations – the Record Company – is stabilized; the band is only that cog of the Stable Machine that must necessarily move to progress business. Emily whines that she “wants a life.” And being on tour is not A Life? The tragedy is that Emily – through the ignorant, traitorous screenwriter – speaks for everyone who arrogantly and condescendingly believes that being on the road in a band is “not a real job.”
All we ever hear in life is that we should aspire to never being tied behind a desk – when Chris achieves this, Emily decides to Stand Up And Pout and leaves him. Her last straw is when Chris cannot remember what city he is in and forgets their date due to sleep-deprivation coupled with insensate philandering. (So what? On the road, band members rarely know which city they’re in, even when they are completely cognizant – performing the gig and promoting the product is the paramount reason for their existence at that juncture. Since they are cattled at the road manager’s behest onto a stage which is constructed to look exactly the same every night, all they have to do is go through their well-rehearsed motions to earn their pay.) Emily sees this as an ongoing problem which will only escalate – but if she won’t stand by him during the good times – and make no mistake, these are the good times (with chicks and guns and firetrucks and hookers and drugs and booze – all the things that make life worth livin’ for) – why would Chris ever consider her a candidate for standing by him during the bad?
The obvious paradox is: by movie’s end, when Chris has re-started below the bottom of the barrel, just what is he aiming to achieve?
Maybe in five years, his feeble, freebie “project” might graduate to pub band level, playing Sweet Home Alabama and Brown-Eyed Girl to a gaggle of drunk ingrates and Skynyrd junkies, pulling down a whole $35 per man for five hours onstage, shelling out expenses for flyers and petrol and food and rehearsals and equipment, and eventually getting fired for not bringing enough heads in the door; making sycophantic calls to venue managers who assuage their small-knobbed insecurities by playing power games of hiring and firing; entering every futile Battle Of The Bands comp, never realizing it’s still about bringing heads in the door and not about their “soul-searching” music; trying to secure an “audition” gig in a Pasadena restaurant and fantasizing that one day they’ll be –
Rock Stars – ? – !