Is Rock Star really the worst film ever made about rock?

Press photo of Steel Dragon
Hollywood's imaginary dragon: Steel Dragon (Image credit: Warner Bros)

Rock has a chequered relationship with cinema. For better or worse, the romance and mythology that surrounds rock‘n’roll lore seldom translates to the silver screen. Whether it’s rockumentaries, biopics or concert films, there’s just no substitute for the real thing.

But what of original films about rock music? Like Rock Star, the 2001 film starring Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Anniston. Originally dubbed Metal God, it was a box-office bomb that was criticised for it's banality and an over-reliance on cliché. It’s as good a time as any for a reappraisal, so, is this really the worst film ever made about rock?

Telling the story of Chris ‘Izzy’ Cole, Rock Star is said to be inspired by ex-Judas Priest frontman Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens. Owens spent time fronting Priest tribute band British Steel before replacing Rob Halford and teaming up with his childhood idols in 1996. In the case of Rock Star’s premise, just swap Owens for Cole and Judas Priest for fictional heavy metal band Steel Dragon. That’s where the similarities end, with Priest bassist Ian Hill confirming in an interview with PopMatters that the ‘local boy done good’ angle was ‘the only true aspect of the movie’.

Straight off the bat, it must be said that the film’s treatment of women is appalling. There’s the scene where Mats - Steel Dragon’s painfully archetype English tour manager - eagerly hands out what he calls ‘pussy passes’ to female fans of the band, in order to access the backstage area. And then the scene where Dragon guitarist Kirk Cuddy proclaims to refer to all women as ‘totty’, as he simply can’t keep track of his sexual partners - admittedly an improvement on ‘old slag’, the moniker he has for his ex-wife. Or the scene where Mats forbids the band’s wives and girlfriends from travelling on the tour bus. Instructing them to instead go ‘back to the henhouse’, lest they become a distraction.

The irony being that Emily, Cole’s girlfriend played by Anniston, is arguably the film’s best character. Often sincere, witty and supportive, she’s clearly deserving of a love interest much more attentive than Cole. Thankfully, society has progressed in recent years, but it’s baffling to think that this cut of the movie made it past Warner Bros. executives as recently as 2001. The scene where Cole practises a God-awful English accent by standing in front of a mirror and repeating the line ‘I get loads of pussy, mate’ is genuinely difficult to watch.

It doesn’t help that Cole, the film’s central character, is at best petulant and self-absorbed. From the moment he screams at bandmate Rob and destroys his amp mid-gig simply for adding an extra guitar lick to a Steel Dragon song, you’re never really rooting for him. Interestingly, Brad Pitt was initially signed in 1998 to play the lead role but left the production after creative differences. He dodged a bullet.

For its sins, Rock Star does have underlying messages. Something about following your dreams but not losing sight of the people and things that keep you whole. And another about overcoming self-doubt. But their meanings are so bogged down by abject misogyny and irksome rock‘n’roll gimmicks that you’re not even slightly convinced. They’re also conflated and confused in their delivery.

Cole’s sneering cop brother, Joe, criticises him for fantasising about being someone else as a tribute band singer. Meanwhile, bandmate Rob astutely asks Cole if he’d rather fail as himself than succeed as a Bobby Beers clone. By the time Cole’s picked up as Steel Dragon’s frontman, it’s unclear whether he’s still fixated on being Beers - somewhat distorting the message of carving out one’s own legacy. He does eventually take lyric sheets and cassettes of his demos to the band at a recording session, but these are ridiculed and shunned outright. Only compounding his self-fulfilling insecurities.

Having realised that ‘the life’ is not all it’s cracked up to be, Cole quits Steel Dragon mid-tour and returns to Seattle, of all places, to form an originals band with ex-Blood Pollution bandmate Rob. Cutting his hair, sticking a cardigan on and singing post-grunge, pseudo-Scott Stapp songs - because, obviously! You’re left with an indeterminate sense of what was that all for?

Legendary, late film critic Roger Ebert alluded to as much in his own review, saying that the movie was unconvincing in ‘the feel and the flavour of its experiences’. That said, he also praised Timothy Spall’s performance as Mats, who only ever comes across as a seedy pimp - invariably offering trivial, toilet wall philosophies if given enough screen time.

Albeit rare, there is some comic relief to be had here. An early scene depicting rival Steel Dragon tribute acts (one being Blood Pollution, Cole’s own) arguing about coloured lapels and phallic padding is entertaining. As are some of the film’s cameos from real-life rock stars. Zakk Wylde appears as Steel Dragon’s red-blooded lead guitarist, Ghode, though he seems to wield a loaded shotgun as often as his guitar - shooting road signs and crowing about killing things. 

Elsewhere, Jason Bonham (son of Zeppelin’s John, of course) plays A.C, the band’s drummer, who advises Cole to dump Emily and ‘live the life’. Mere minutes later he’s shown trashing a hotel room because ‘his wife ran off with Peter Gabriel’. The poetic justice is completely lost on him.

Perhaps Rock Star’s most satisfying moment comes during Cole’s final performance with Steel Dragon. During which he brings Mike, a fan played by a fresh-faced Myles Kennedy (yes, the Myles Kennedy), onstage for a vocal duet. The hysterical Mike shouts ‘dreams come true!’ before he clambers over the barrier. At the time, Kennedy - one of the industry’s nicest guys - was a relative unknown fronting The Mayfield Four. Having spent the past 20 years securing his position as one of rock’s leading voices today, both for his work with Alter Bridge and Slash, we know his exclamation to be correct. Dreams do indeed come true, Myles.

Why films like Wayne’s World, Bill & Ted and This Is Spinal Tap succeed is because of their ability to poke fun at rock’s enduring tropes, making light of them in a daft, endearing way. Because, after all, this rock‘n’roll thing is supposed to be fun, right? Putting the emphasis on likeable slackers like Bill and Ted, or geeky underdogs like Wayne and Garth. Whisper it, but even School of Rock has its moments - the failed stage dive certainly stands out.

In Rock Star, there is no equivalent to Wayne’s World’s Bohemian Rhapsody headbanging. No self-deprecating humour. No droll sarcasm. Just a total lack of self-awareness and a tendency to present rock’s most absurd elements as earnest storytelling. From as early as the title sequence, it’s all too obvious that Rock Star is a film made by people who appear to know very little about rock music. Don’t let the filmmakers find out about Spinal Tap. They’ll probably have Steel Dragon cover Smell The Glove as a serious love song.

Watch the cameos on YouTube and avoid the rest like the plague. Better yet, spend an evening reacquainting yourself with Wayne’s World or Spinal Tap. Rock Star is an absolute stinker.

Chris Lord

Copywriter, music journalist and drummer. Once fist bumped James Hetfield. Words for The Guardian, Gear4Music, Metro, Exposed Mag.