Why the Judas Priest-Inspired Movie ‘Rock Star’ Bombed
In 1996, a rock ’n’ roll dream literally came true for Tim “Ripper” Owens, who ended his career as singer in a Judas Priest tribute band in order to become a singer with the real Judas Priest. The story made headlines around the world, and Hollywood quickly took notice.
But that was long before rock biopics were big business. Hollywood hadn’t yet subscribed to the idea of the accurate story (or at least nearly the accurate story) having a value all its own, or to the idea of an artist’s music being presented as its own character within the narrative. By the time Metal God – the true story of how Ripper Owens replaced his hero, Rob Halford – hit theaters, it was titled Rock Star and turned into a based-on rom-com featuring Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Aniston, with no reference to Owens himself ... or even Priest.
“It all started with an article in The New York Times, front page of the entertainment section,” Owens tells UCR. “That was on the Sunday. On the Monday I was on the golf course in my hometown, and my parents were calling me, saying, ‘There’s movie companies calling, interested in that story.’ Then they called again, saying, ‘Hey, George Clooney and Warner Bros. just called!’”
What did the rising star do with the information? He passed it on to Priest manager Jane Andrews, because he was part of a team. “First of all, you think you’re going to get paid from it anyway,” he laughs, “and at that point in my career, I’d have taken $5,000. But they’re not Judas Priest for nothing – they know what they’re doing.” That was almost the last interaction Owens had with Hollywood. “The person that the movie was supposed to be about wasn’t involved in it at all,” he muses. “So that’s kinda funny, isn’t it?”
Owens' understanding is that communications between the band and the film company were positive at first. “We were supposed to have music in the movie and everything,” he recalls. “The issue was control. The band said, ‘Look, we don’t like the angle of some of these things. … You’re not painting an accurate portrait here.’ The movie people said, ‘You have no creative input,’ so the band pulled away and said, ‘You cannot use our name without telling an accurate story.'”
Among those inaccuracies, Owens says, was an attempt to make the members of Priest appear older than they really were and to suggest more interpersonal issues between them and the departed Halford than really existed. “When I joined, they were young and spry,” Owens states. “But the movie was trying to paint a different picture. They never said a bad word about Rob in the whole time I was with them, for example. It’s a shame, because it could have been such a great movie. The guys just wanted an accurate movie, not a Spinal Tap movie.”
That’s more or less what he saw when Rock Star was released in September 2001 – around the same time the infamous Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story hit TV screens. Owens must have been disappointed. “Well, I was,” he allows, “but I always say this: I was the inspiration for somebody to make a movie – without murdering anybody!” He adds that he’s still asked to sign DVD covers, and it remains a topic of conversation for some fans. “There are people who just know me from Rock Star, and not even from Judas Priest. … How weird is that?”
Watch the ‘Rock Star’ Trailer
Priest fans object to the depiction of the fictional Rob Halford as having been fired as a result of being gay, when, in fact, Halford’s sexuality was an open secret even before he came out in 1998. Plus, he chose to leave the band himself. Owens objected to the fictional version of him being seen as a “stalker fan” of the band he loved, though he laughingly admits, “I was a stalker fan when I was in high school!”
On paper, the musical talent looked relatively promising: Steel Dragon, the fictional band that replaced Priest in the story, included Zakk Wylde, Jeff Pilson and Jason Bonham. For Owens, the soundtrack was one of the biggest disappointments: “It wasn’t the kind of music we did or I did.” Also disappointing was the movie’s focus on traditional “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll” cliches, showing Steel Dragon living a life far detached from most heavy rock bands of the ‘90s. “Bands like Judas Priest were playing in places like Bob’s Big Bamboo at the time,” he notes. “No one was playing arenas – even AC/DC and Iron Maiden weren’t playing arenas at that time. So the Spinal Tap thing came in.”
Watch Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens Perform With Judas Priest
Robbed of the soul that made the idea so attractive in the first place, Rock Star was a box-office bomb, grossing just $19.3 million on a budget of $57 million. The word “generic” appears in a number of reviews; the marketing boss even told MTV, “Ninety percent of the movie is based on pure rock-star mythology.” Priest guitarist Glenn Tipton countered that "this is the thing that’s sort of not very good for us. Everybody still thinks it's the story of Ripper, but it isn’t.” He noted the band was watching closely, just in case it could consider legal action.
Owens says the biggest missed opportunity was to tell a rags-to-riches story that could only have taken place in real life because of the people involved. And with a new era of biopics very much on the rise, perhaps that story will still be told. "Anything that celebrates rock 'n' roll is amazing," he says of the latest round of movies. (He also argues that his current tour as part of the Ronnie James Dio hologram show Dio Returns fits in well with an entertainment scene that includes actors playing dead artists they may not have appreciated when they were still alive.)
Halford – whose 2003 return marked the end of Owens’ time with Priest – certainly believes it would be good to have another look at telling the band's story on the big screen. “Maybe I’ll be in another movie and they’ll portray me right – although they’ll probably erase me!” Owens jokes. “I think there could be a great Judas Priest movie. I would be a small blip, but it’s a pretty big blip when you’re nominated for a Grammy and you have a movie made about you. It would be nice to be talked about nicely, and not be a Spinal Tap thing again. Show how we all handled it with respect. That’s the thing that makes the story so good.”