Detroit Rock City

Is Detroit Rock City only for KISS fans? It probably helps to be a card-carrying member of the KISS Army, but even if you’re a disco-loving Stella, the movie’s theme is universal: Four teenage guys on a quest to see the world’s greatest rock group in concert, with apparently everyone between Cleveland and Detroit standing in their way. The movie isn’t a trailblazer; it’s an exuberantly trashy party, a comedy of lowdown defeats and triumphs. It won’t be the influential, well-loved ’70s sketchbook movie that Dazed and Confused was; it’s more of a throwaway pop artifact, though it still pays tribute to the essential single-mindedness of teenagers. The kids in Dazed and Confused wanted to get stoned. The kids in American Pie wanted to get laid. The kids in Detroit Rock City want to see KISS in concert. Everything else is incidental.

Our four heroes, Hawk (Edward Furlong), Trip (James De Bello), Jam (Sam Huntington), and Lex (Giuseppe Andrews), are Cleveland high-schoolers who have their own (pretty awful) KISS tribute band. KISS, as it happens, is coming to Detroit on their ’78 tour, and the guys have tickets — but not for long, after Jam’s devoutly Catholic mom (Lin Shaye, well on her way to becoming the movies’ resident gargoyle woman) torches them. The boys spend the rest of the movie trying and failing to get tickets; it’s as if they couldn’t look at themselves in the mirror unless they see this particular concert at this precise moment in their lives. Indeed, with disco gaining a stranglehold on American pop music, it’s as if the boys’ failure might also spell KISS’s own doom. (In the end, as we know, KISS had the last laugh; the evidence is this movie.)

Detroit Rock City kicks off with a splatter of ’70s imagery under the opening credits, placing KISS in their proper context as a blockbuster band that could only really have happened in the odd transitional phase between Nixon and Reagan. To these ears, KISS’s music is loud and amped-up cheeseball music at its apex (which, I hasten to add, is not necessarily a bad thing); it wouldn’t have gone far, though, without the stage pyrotechnics. KISS redesigned gaudy showmanship for suburban white kids. They learned from their glam-rock forefathers, adding the very American elements of blood and thunder, sex and horror. Someone who’s never seen KISS in action may listen to the music by itself and consider it vigorously-played metal without much personality; KISS’s flamboyant stage act carries on the time-honored show-biz equation of personality as pure style. This is why even KISS fans look back on the band’s brief no-makeup phase in the mid-’80s as a regrettable blip: Without the showmanship, KISS were too much like 27 other hair-metal bands of the period — they’d lost their mojo. (It was really another form of showmanship — “See KISS’s real faces!” — which didn’t work.)

What’s best about Detroit Rock City is that the director, Adam Rifkin, understands that style is personality and directs accordingly. The movie is fast and cartoonish, with enough whiplash zooms and other trickery to let you know nobody is taking this very seriously. At times it’s like Rock ‘n’ Roll High School remade by Robert Rodriguez. When Hawk gets drunk at a strip joint, he pukes so much he fills an entire beer pitcher. When a hulking bully punches Trip (James De Bello, incidentally, gives the movie’s stand-out performance as a very Jay-like stoner), he goes flying backward a few feet and bounces off a wall. When Jam loses his virginity to a shy girl who has a crush on him (Melanie Lynskey, who’s grown into a lovely young woman since Heavenly Creatures), the amorous moment unfolds inside a confessional booth. The poster art for Detroit Rock City looks like a Mad magazine illustration (the drawing style is a tribute to Mort Drucker, Mad‘s best caricaturist), and the movie itself is like a Mad magazine parody of itself. The comic-bookiness of the style, its unapologetic lowbrow raunchiness, probably wouldn’t have worked with any other rock band as its inspiration.

At the concert, the guys split up to find or scam tickets, and each of them has embarrassments and victories. Though there’s plenty of crude, rude behavior (sample dialogue: “I never heard a chick blow ass before”), this is essentially a decent-hearted movie; screenwriter Carl V. Dupré makes sure that the guys don’t go too far in their pursuit of KISS, as when Trip has an Animal House-like crisis of conscience in a convenience store, with the floating heads of his three buddies nagging him to do the right thing. Along the way, there are plenty of period details for the attentive, mostly having to do with ’70s junk culture (Hustler, the Farrah poster, comic books, etc.). And the movie doesn’t strong-arm you; it moves at a genial pace and never pretends to be more important than it is. Even the climactic moment, when we finally get to see KISS, is more about the audience excitement than about KISS.

Considering that Gene Simmons was one of the producers, Detroit Rock City could have been a bloodless valentine to KISS fans. But Simmons, a shrewd man, knows his audience has no use for valentines. So the movie he co-produced is just about four schlubby kids from Anywhere, USA, raising hell and getting laid. That’s the meaning of all rock; KISS made it larger than life, but Detroit Rock City scales it back down to human size.

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