The Rocker

The Rocker


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

If you remember the era when rock bands looked and sounded like rock bands were supposed to – i.e. utterly ridiculous – then this effective if formulaic ‘second chance’ comedy could be right up your stadium concourse.

Rainn Wilson (probably best known in the UK for his supporting turn in Juno, but a stalwart of the US version of The Office) plays Robert ‘Fish’ Fishman, capable but over-eager drummer with Vesuvius, a party-hearty hair metal band. The film opens in 1986 with the guys playing a mid-size venue in downtown Cleveland and giving their sub Bon-Jovi ‘hold on to the dreeeaaam’ anthems the full dry ice and power chord treatment.

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Coming off stage, their manager has great news; a record company has offered them a contract, but with one condition; the chairman’s nephew gets to play the drums and Fish is out. Wrestling with their conscience for a full 30 seconds, his band mates consign their compadre to oblivion. Twenty years on, Fish is still in Cleveland and stuck in permanent adolescence, drifting from one dead-end job to another and constantly sponging off his put-upon sister Lisa (Jane Lynch) and her husband Stan (Jeff Garlin from Curb Your Enthusiasm), an Ordinary Joe still in awe of his bro-in-law’s brief stint in the limelight.

To make matters worse, Fish nurses a grudge the size of the O2 Arena against his former band. Their unreconstructed poodle-rock sound is still regularly going platinum (there’s a good laugh for a start; surely they’d have done a ‘back to basics’ folk-roots album or reinvented themselves as reality TV stars by now?) and when his co-workers’ raving about their latest CD tips Fish over the edge he loses his job and then, in true rock drummer fashion, finds himself without a girlfriend and homeless in quick succession.

Kipping in Lisa’s attic, he discovers that his nephew Matt (Gad) plays keyboards in a high school band, A.D.D, which also includes stroppy goth-ish bass player Amelia (Stone, best known as Jonah Hill’s love interest in Superbad) and angsty frontman/creative powerhouse Curtis (Geiger, a singer-songwriter apparently big in America and making his film debut). But – wouldn’t you know – their drummer’s been grounded and the prom gig’s in two days. Fish steps into the breach and, despite his stadium-rock showmanship (and fashion sense) being somewhat at odds with the band’s indie earnestness, the gig’s a success.

OK, as plot developments go it’s about as likely as Radiohead doing a Europop album. But suspension of disbelief is as necessary for enjoying this film as a conviction that Eighties stadium rock was popular music’s supreme achievement. Fish decides that these kids have got something here and proceeds to try to launch them onto the circuit, rediscovering his passion for music - and desire to hold on to the dreeeaaam - in the process.

Unfortunately, a bid to sneak the kids out of town for a weekend gig is discovered by their parents and Fish is turfed out of the attic and forbidden to contact the rest of the band. But in Ludicrous Plot Development No 2, Matt hooks up a four-way webcam so they can rehearse in secret and, because Fish’s new digs are the furnace-hot basement of a Chinese takeaway, he plays in the buff. ‘The Naked Drummer’ becomes an internet sensation and suddenly A.D.D are the Next Big Thing. They acquire a record contract, a superbly oily manager (Saturday Night Live regular Jason Sudeikis) and a US tour. But Curtis’s mum (Applegate) a former rock chick who’s brought up Curtis on her own, insists on coming along as chaperone. She and Fish begin to hit it off, but then the band get their biggest break yet – opening for Vesuvius at their induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame – and Fish declares that he’ll never share the same stage with them...

You’ll be unsurprised to learn it all ends happily. This is undoubtedly predictable stuff, with a typically Hollywood earnestness about being true to yourself (and indeed, holding on to the dreeeaaam). But after a slow and largely laugh-free start, it does build up a reasonable head of steam, with enough smart lines and well-timed physical comedy to keep its head above water. It also mercifully avoids pushing the gross-out button too much (apart from a running gag about Fish’s excessively sweaty stage garments).

In terms of sending up the rock biz, nothing could ever top the peerless Spinal Tap and wisely, The Rocker doesn’t even try. Indeed, it displays an undoubted affection for the peculiar mix of sincerity and bombast that characterised hair metal, which will surely strike a chord with anyone who ever got their mum to iron the Whitesnake logo into their immaculate denims.

Full Monty director Cattaneo proves he still has an instinct for what makes an underdog comedy work without drowning it in syrup. The teen actors do what they can with pretty undernourished roles – these are the nicest teen rockers you’ll ever meet, and their ascent of the showbiz greasy pole is remarkably trouble-free – and Appelgate’s turn as a feisty ‘yummy mummy’ will spark a pang of nostalgia (and perhaps a twinge of rheumatism) for all those who remember her from Married With Children.

But the film belongs to Wilson, and a lot of what edges The Rocker into three-star territory is down to him. A natural comic actor, he lights up every scene he’s in; whether reprising his ‘Office’ schtick or partying like it’s 1986, he’s a warm and winning presence, and the film flags when he’s not around. I doubt it’ll make many people’s All-Time Top Ten. But it’s not quite bargain bin material either.

Reviewed on: 14 Oct 2008
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The original drummer of an Eighties hair metal band gets a second chance at stardom when his nephew’s group makes it big.
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Director: Peter Cattaneo

Writer: Maya Forbes, Wally Wolodarsky

Starring: Rainn Wilson, Christina Applegate, Emma Stone, Teddy Geiger, Josh Gad

Year: 2008

Runtime: 102 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision


EIFF 2008

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