How Metal God Became Rock Star

By Fred Topel

Studio research showed that people would not go see a movie called Metal God, so the film produced under that name became Rock Star. The movie tells the story of heavy metal tribute band singer Chris Coles (Mark Wahlberg), who becomes the lead singer of his favorite band, Steel Dragon. Though the film tracks Coles' rise to Metal God status in the mid 1980's, director Stephen Herek (Mr. Holland's Opus, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) was forced to alter the title when it came time to market the film.

"I don't know how many people know how scientific it can become," Herek lamented. "There is a lot of research, a lot more research than I think people really realize in regards to testing certain things. So, the Warner Brothers people had done a test on the title Metal God and it didn't test very high, just 'Based on the title would you go see this movie?' Then they started coming up with certain titles and so forth. Some titles, you wouldn't even want to hear, were tested as well. Rock Star is a shortened version of So, You Wanna Be a Rock Star. This has been going on for the last year and a half and it wasn't until eight or nine months ago when we finally decided to go with just the straight title Rock Star. It tested quite high just based on the title. Their reasoning behind it is that the word metal is very associated with a very specific type of music, even though it is the music that's being played in the movie. And the word God also is sort of one of these words that is somewhat verboten in movie titles, or doesn't test high. Whatever it is, the psychology of it, didn't seem to make it test very high."

Herek would sympathize with any metal fan who feels left out by the studio-imposed title change. "Quite honestly, I'm still partial to Metal God because that's what we started with, that was the inception," Herek said. "It's taken me a long time to accept the title Rock Star, [but] it's not my money. It's the Warner Bros. people's money and they basically can do what they want to do. On the other hand, I do want as many people to go see the movie as possible."

Herek and the film's producers enlisted Dokken bassist Jeff Pilson as the film's music director to ensure accuracy to the 80's period music. The fictitious Steel Dragon included Pilson, Zakk Wylde, Dominic West, and Jason Bonham, and as music director, Pilson ran the band rehearsals and ensured the songs fit 80's style.

"There were certain things you stayed away from in the '80s that maybe they do now, or things that they didn't do in the '70s that they decided to do in the '80s," Pilson explained. "I'm talking about song structure, I'm talking about arrangements and orchestration. Where do you put all the background vocals? Where is there going to be a guitar theme? That kind of thing and just putting the music together is different. That's why '60s music sounds like '60s music and '90s music sounds like that. Each era has its own peculiarities and you just have to be aware of that. That's what we did. We knew from our authentic experience how to make the songs sound like '80s."

Wahlberg trained with a voice coach to sustain his singing for longer periods of time than he was used to when he rapped as Marky Mark. The film's audio department combined Wahlberg's real voice with other singers to create the final sound of Chris Coles. To get into the role of a heavy metal singer, Wahlberg began listening to genre music, but found the true voice for the character elsewhere.

"With this movie, I started trying to listen to hardcore heavy metal and it just wasn't working for me," Wahlberg said. "So, I started listening to more classic rock, hard rock like Led Zeppelin and Hendrix and Blue Oyster Cult and things like that. I listened to some of the hard stuff but it just gets a bit repetitive."

Wahlberg did grow his hair out for the "hair metal" look, and was inspired by his musician costars to dress appropriately. "A lot of the guys in the film are real guys in the music world, with the hair," Wahlberg said. "Actually having to wear it for six months and being uncomfortable with that led me to wearing the clothes all the time that they would wear, clothes that matched the hair."

With all its attention to accuracy, the film is still a Hollywood fantasy. One scene has Coles pull a fan on stage and let him perform. Pilson, however, remembered a true story that was similar enough to justify the movie's scene.

"I believe a friend of mine was in the audience at a Who concert where Keith Moon actually passed out on his drum set," Pilson said. "They actually said over the PA, 'Well, does anybody play drums?' Some kid in the audience raised his hand and they brought him up on stage and he played drums for an hour with The Who. That is an honest to God true story, so maybe this isn't so much of an exaggeration."

The film does show the hazards of a rock star lifestyle, with the ramifications of drug use and orgies. However, Herek admitted that earlier cuts of the film went further in those areas, but they were reduced to focus the film on the less conventional aspects of the rock n' roll story.

"One of the things I tried to do was go against what you normally would expect in a rock n' roll movie," Herek said. "Most of the times, your parents don't support you. It's like, 'Turn that stereo down, blah, blah, blah, blah." Well, we wanted to make the parents very supportive. Same thing, nine times out of ten it usually ends up in some sort of death, a drug overdose, something ripping you apart. It is a fairy tale that's not the whole fairy tale. I tried to leave it somewhat ambiguous. There is a much harder movie that's not in the movie, in terms of drug use, sexuality and so forth and so on. But, going through some of the preview process, I feel that we found a good line portraying this era but without going to extreme decadent measures. That's part of what's ended up on the floor, a certain amount of drugs and sexuality because we found in this area that there is a very hard left and a very hard right and it's amazing even the youth today, there's more of a conservatism that seems to be spreading and it started to turn some people off."

Pilson, reflecting on his own experience, felt that the excesses of the '80s music scene have leveled out in the current industry, thanks in part to the increased commercialization of music.

"It's a big business now," Pilson said. "It's very corporate. There is more of that going on so I think a lot of people are doing that. Yeah, there are still partiers, but in general I think the partying aspect of the life and that whole thing is the shallow part. That's kind of what the movie is telling you. That stuff's fleeting. I think all youth need to go through their fun periods, and that's great. That's all part of it. It's when it's get carried away, when you put $10 million in a 25-year-old kid's pocket that you're going to get in trouble. I think things have tempered down a bit from that."

Herek concluded with his thoughts on what draws him to musical stories. "Music, there's something about it," Herek mused. "There's an energy. There's a life. It makes you feel something and to me, if you get the right music with the right image, it can make you feel a lot of things."

Fred Topel is an entertainment journalist
and editor of

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Related Links:

Official Article Site: (Andrew Revkin's updated 20-page piece about Ripper Owens, the man who inspired this film)

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