Victims of change

Though it's based in large measure on their true-life story, "Rock Star" is hardly the gospel according to Judas Priest. The venerable British metalers have taken pains to distance themselves from Warner Bros. Pictures' rags-to-riches drama (which opened last week), in which a Pennsylvania copy-machine repairman and cover-band vocalist (Mark Wahlberg) receives the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join a platinum-level noise squad he's worshiped for as long as his tonsils can remember.

The story was inspired by an August 1997 New York Times> profile of Tim "Ripper" Owens, an Ohio office-supplies salesman who went from fronting a Judas Priest tribute act to joining the real thing after Priest's wildly popular singer, Rob Halford, went solo. In the film's early stages, Priest was to be identified as the band in question; the group was even said to be recording some new songs for the project. Those plans fell apart, the musicians say, when they saw what the movie was turning into over time.

"The story was bought from The New York Times by the film company," Priest guitarist Glenn Tipton told Canada's JAM! Showbiz website. "`But` as always, films go the other way and become very Hollywood-like. It really has nothing to do with us anymore."

The temptation to chuckle at Tipton's Spinal Tap-ian logic is strong. Saying that a major-studio release has "become very Hollywood-like" is akin to lamenting that a cheese sandwich has "taken a turn toward the dairy." Things are what they are. It's easier to believe the scenario described to MTV News by Andrew C. Revkin, the author of the Times story and a creative consultant on the film.

"They wanted to see screenplays and stuff," Revkin said of Priest. "If you were Warner Bros. and you were gonna throw $30 million into making a movie, would you want a bunch of middle-aged former heavy metal stars to have creative control? No."

The final cut of "Rock Star" has its share of moments from which an embarrassed bunch of riff-peddlers might well want to run and hide. Though Judas Priest has become "Steel Dragon," telltale parallels linger. In a brief passage that's unwisely played for laughs, Wahlberg's Chris "Izzy" Cole learns that the vocal god he's replacing, one Bobby Beers (Jason Flemyng), is a homosexual. Priest's Halford made headlines by coming out as a gay man shortly after he left the group. (Whether or not he had mulled dropping that bombshell while he was still in the Priest fold Ð and what effect it may have had on his departure Ð remains open to speculation.) In "Rock Star," Cole becomes frustrated that his new band won't allow him to contribute as a songwriter. Owens has voiced similar disappointment: Since he joined Priest in 1996, his authorship credits have been limited to a single track released only in Japan.

Perhaps most damaging of all, the movie's clumsily handled leitmotif is the gradual supplanting of metal by grunge as the American masses' music of choice. Such a cinematic postmortem is the last thing a still-working metal band would wish upon itself.

The majority of the film is set in the years 1985-1986, though the fashions worn by the actors and the radio-rock classics that dot the soundtrack bounce around the decade like ping-pong balls. The coiffed, svelte Cole appears less likely to line up with a rough-and-tumble, Priest-derived crew than with the late-'80s wuss outfit Slaughter. The latter's drummer, Blas Elias, even has a small role in "Rock Star," playing the percussionist in Cole's Steel Dragon cover band, Blood Pollution.

The "rags" portion of this rags-to-riches tale, however, gets more details right than wrong. Cole and his posse live in a fan-boy substrata that's defined by tailgate parties, home nipple piercings and familial relations that range from the supportive to the strained. When the entire bunch Ð including Cole's girlfriend/manager, Emily Poule (Jennifer Aniston) Ð venture out to see the Dragon in concert, they walk into a bass-heavy maelstrom that's frighteningly accurate in its muddy, hockey-rink heft. Director Stephen Herek ("Mr. Holland's Opus"; "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure") deserves credit for preserving low-fi reality in the face of pristine possibility. Anyone who bowed at metal's altar during the 1980s will respond to these sequences on some basic physical level.

Anyone else, however, will likely wonder what the hell is going on, and why he or she is supposed to care. And neither camp will find serviceable entertainment in the film's "riches" half, which is as journalistically probing and dramatically credible as the "Adios, Johnny Bravo" episode of TV's "The Brady Bunch." Scripter John Stockwell (who penned the HBO films "Breast Men" and "Cheaters") would have us believe that Cole's hiring and Beers' firing take place not only at the exact same time, but in the same room. That improbable changing of the guard opens the floodgates to a ceaseless parade of show-biz-Cinderella clichés and outright inanities. The headstrong-but-honest Cole, we learn, is ill prepared for the decadence and compromises of the music industry. Which are? Well, there's the aforementioned denial of artistic input, as well as his new bandmates' disturbing habit of throwing big-breasted women in his path. How's a hometown romance to survive? This overheated crisis is heralded in a laughable postconcert sex-and-drugs orgy that could be the most ludicrous scene of any film so far this millennium. It makes Eyes Wide Shut look like a documentary.

At least it hints at a welcome end to the sickeningly sweet relationship be-tween Cole and Poule, an overemphasized plot line that afflicts this metal morality play with a heart of marshmallow. Aniston is the chief offender, her two-note portrayal vacillating between gulping declarations of puppy love and sarcastic snorts of superiority to the groupie gymnastics around her. It's the sort of performance that screams "career killer" as loudly and definitively as Halford once wailed the climactic note to Priest's "Victim of Changes." Wahlberg is a better bet to pick up the pieces and move on. He really can act, though that factoid is becoming easier to forget the more often he's cast opposite talking monkeys and, well, Jennifer Aniston.

So who said Priest is dumb? Taking their names off this mess Ð while still agreeing to be interviewed about it Ð affords them publicity without culpability. They could use the former, having suffered a precipitous drop in interest since Halford left and the heavy-music marketplace underwent its seismic shift. Their first album with Owens, 1997's Jugulator, was released on the independent CMC International label. They're back on a major (Atlantic) with the current Demo-lition, though the album isn't potent enough to reverse their fortunes on its own. (One reason: Karaoke mouthpiece Owens sounds as much like Freddie Mercury as he does Rob Halford.) Of more interest to longtime fans are the remasters of four of Priest's classic discs that were unleashed last May, and the second set of four that are due to arrive in October. Capitalizing on all this activity, the band is again on the road, undertaking a world tour that stops here Sept. 30 at House of Blues.

At the same time, they're keeping a wary eye on Rock Star. "When the final thing comes out, if people have misconstrued it with our story, then we will have to take some legal action," Tipton told MTV News last June.

They might want to start with Wahl-berg, who bucked Warner Bros.' no-names policy by crediting the group as an at-least-partial inspiration for the film on the Sept. 6 edition of NBC's Today. But it would be better for them to shrug it all off and soldier on with that combination of dogged persistence and axe-wielding Luddism that is their idiom's approximation of grace. And just in case they're considering titles for their next release, let the record show that Creative Control rings sincerely metallic to these ears.

Judas Priest performs 6 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 30, at House of Blues; $27.50; 934-2583.

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