It started out as a true story. In the mid-’90s Tim "Ripper" Owens took over Rob Halford’s role of lead singer in the metal band Judas Priest. In a 1997 New York Times profile, journalist Andrew C. Revkin documented Owens’ metamorphosis from cover-band impersonator to real-thing frontman. His story caught the eye of movie producer Robert Lawrence. "I read this fascinating story about a tribute band member who became a real rock star—who replaced the very singer he had been impersonating for years," Lawrence recalls. "The notion of a tribute band member who ultimately played in the actual band was extremely intriguing to me." Lawrence contacted screenwriter John Stockwell (Crazy/Beautiful) and a motion picture became inevitable.
Reported tension between Judas Priest and Warner Bros. resulted in the fictionalizing of the tale, but the plot remained much the same. Set in 1985 and oozing with hair-band classics from the likes of Def Leppard, Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi, AC/DC and INXS, Rock Star details Chris Cole’s meteoric flight to superstardom from the lowly local tribute band Blood Pollution to the lead singer of international rockers Steel Dragon. Thankfully, it doesn’t stop there. Although crammed with sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, those excesses ultimately serve as a poignant morality tale for today’s young rock and hip hop fans: Be careful what you wish for; it just might come true.
positive elements: Chris and Emily’s relationship, while sexual, is loving and devoted. When groupies, drugs, alcohol and pressures of celebrity prove too distracting, the pair slowly drifts apart, but moviegoers are left with a palatable sense of their loss. Superfans beware. Rock Star will stick a pin in your balloon. Movie trailers show the hype and the fun and the glamour. Yes, quite a bit of screen time is devoted to such things. But the story culminates with the idea that the things in life that really matter are simplicity, being satisfied with who you are, settling down and raising a family, and being happy—real-life contentments rock stars rarely achieve.
spiritual content: Very little in the strictest sense (Chris sings in a church choir), but depictions of excessive lifestyles are so antithetical to the teachings of Christ that they seem to hint at a perverse spirituality by their sheer lack of godly ideals.
sexual content: At first blush it would seem the filmmakers restrained themselves by merely implying the many sexual scenes which were written into the script. But the implications are severe. An all-out orgy involving Steel Dragon, strippers, groupies, girlfriends and wives washes the screen with glimpses of nudity, erotic dancing, groping and hetero- and homosexual kissing. Drugs and alcohol fuel the frenzy and when it’s all over, Chris and Emily wake groggily and sheepishly to find themselves entwined with multiple sex partners. Crude sexual slang for both male and female genitalia abounds. Oral sex and masturbation are joked about, as is Chris’ sexual identity. Groupies sport skimpy outfits and flaunt lots of cleavage. Two sunbathing women roll over and expose themselves to Chris (and theatergoers). Another overeager fan bares her breasts against the band’s limousine window. Homosexual jokes fly when a bandmate reveals he is gay. One girl who makes sexual advances toward both Chris and Emily—and engages them in perversity at the orgy—is seen urinating while standing up (implying he is a cross-dresser). Onstage, Chris makes obscene gestures and even uses a fire hose to suggest sexual arousal.
violent content: Rival tribute bands scuffle in the parking lot after a Steel Dragon concert. Chris and his brother partake in a bit of unfriendly horseplay which culminates in a headlock. Chris and Steel Dragon trash a hotel room, nailing furniture to the ceiling, crashing a motorcycle through a door, etc. Chris’ head wound from a fall onstage produces quite a bit of blood. Chris also pushes a bandmate and smashes an amplifier with his mic stand. That results in a band brawl which terminates the concert.
crude or profane language: The f-word is used nearly 15 times as both a vulgar exclamation and as a synonym for sex. Add to that almost 20 s-words, offensive anatomical slang, abuses of Jesus’ name and fistfuls of other profanity and Rock Star’s language begins to rival its sex and drugs.
drug and alcohol content: On the bus. Backstage. In bars. In parking lots. In hotels. Drugs, alcohol and tobacco are constant companions. Steel Dragon get high to write new songs. They get stoned to party. They get smashed to relax. These well-known vices of the rock world rule their lives.
other negative elements: Never once do Chris’ parents object to his lifestyle—even when he’s still living at home. They want to be supportive of their son, and that’s great, but refusing to utter even a single loving word of caution does much more harm than good. Additionally, Emily pierces the intoxicated Chris’ nipple.
conclusion: Part Spinal Tap, part Almost Famous, Rock Star reached out for authenticity by recruiting a cast full of musicians who could actually play their instruments instead of just acting like they could. Drummer Jason Bonham (son of the late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham) plays Steel Dragon’s hard-partying stick master. Others include Third Eye Blind singer/songwriter Stephan Jenkins, Slaughter’s Blas Elias, Verve Pipe’s Brian Vander Ark and former Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Zakk Wylde.
While no movie can be truly 100 percent authentic, this one does a fairly convincing job of creating the mood. The glitz. The intemperance. The big hair and glossy makeup. The groupies. The free sex and drugs. None of which are very pretty when seen up close. And here they are ogled at point-blank range. As children we seem to always want to experience things for ourselves. We’re told the stove burner is hot, but we touch it anyway. We’re warned the busy street in dangerous, but we recklessly run across it. We know sin brings death, but we still want to dabble in it. Chris should have known Steel Dragon wouldn’t fulfill his dreams, but he rushed headlong into the abyss anyway. There comes a time when we simply need to grow up and learn from someone else’s pain instead of insisting on experiencing it all ourselves.
It’s a cautionary message hopefully not lost on young star-struck music fans lured—against their parents’ better judgment—to the theater to experience Rock Star. Because if that lesson is ignored there’s really nothing left onscreen but luridness and obscenity.