Do not be fooled: Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss receive top billing in Detroit Rock City, but KISS doesn't actually appear in the film until its final three minutes. And when its members do show up, clad in their de rigueur leather-and-greasepaint getups, it's simply to perform the film's title song during a rather tepid, workaday concert sequence; think VH-1, not even MTV. The concert footage doesn't even seem as if it's part of the movie. Worse, the scene is clearly taking place in 1999, not 1978: The wrinkles beneath Ace Frehley's makeup are like rings in a tree, giving away his age on the big screen. It's an unintentionally disquieting moment in a movie full of them.
Detroit Rock City might not have been such a disappointment the less KISS, the better, these days had there never existed KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. That 1987 made-for-NBC special was the most stunningly dreadful rock-and-roll film ever.
Detroit Rock City is nothing more than a turgid, unfunny, out-of-time rocksploitation movie about four stoner teens trying to get into a KISS concert at Detroit's Cobo Hall in 1978. (First-time screenwriter Carl Dupré based the film on his own teen fetish.) Not even the murky, weed-scented haze of nostalgia can obscure the movie's emptiness; it's like a KISS record come to life: a whole lot of something about nothing at all.
Detroit Rock City.
It wasn't a good sign when, during a recent preview screening, a few audience members got more excited hearing Van Halen's "Running with the Devil" than any of the dozen or so KISS cuts that permeate the dazed-and-confused soundtrack.
Ah, if only Hawk (Edward Furlong), Lex (Giuseppe Andrews), Jam (Sam Huntington) and Trip (James DeBello) had wanted to party down with Bon Scott and Angus Young; then you'd have a movie. Instead, these four high school buddies spend their evenings toking up and playing KISS covers down in the basement. They dream of opening for KISS one day the quartet bills itself as Mystery, the s written in KISS's signature font but until then, the boys will have to satisfy themselves with just seeing the band in nearby Detroit. The only problem is, Jam's old lady (Lin Shaye) is a member of a Karen Carpenter-loving, God-fearing anti-KISS organization; the only way she'll let her boy see the Knights in Satan's Service is over her dead body. She ends up burning the boys' tickets and using the flames to light her chain-smoked cigarettes.
The foursome spends the rest of the movie trying to score admission to the defining moment of their young lives. Long (very long) story short: Guys have tickets, lose tickets, get more tickets, go to Detroit in Mom's "borrowed" car, get in fight with disco boys, lose tickets again, then split up in search of even more tickets. (Never in history have four people been more unable to keep track of slips of paper.) Hawk ends up performing a drunken, vomit-drenched striptease in a ladies-only club for the money to buy tickets, of course and getting it on with an older woman (waaay-ex-Playmate and Gene Simmons paramour Shannon Tweed) in the backseat of her car.
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And as for the rest of Hawk's buddies: Jam finds love in a confessional booth; Lex saves his mother's stolen car and rescues a kidnapped girl; and Trip, on the verge of committing a convenience-store holdup out of desperation, winds up becoming a masked hero. Detroit Rock City seems to exist in one of those alternate universes where really interesting things happen to really boring people. It's amazing how four virgin high schoolers can round up four willing girls in 90 minutes and in a city they've never stepped foot in before.
Finally the boys decide the only way they're going to gain entrance into the arena is to beat the holy crap out of one another and insist someone stole their tickets. It's an inexplicable, overwrought, bloody finale and for what? To watch Gene Simmons spit fake blood all over his hairy paunch?
Detroit Rock City, like the just-released Dick, is caught between two audiences: the teen converts at whom it's aimed and the post-30 crowd that actually gets the joke. Doubtful KISS's current audience, the kids buying Psycho Circus (or, more likely, selling it back at the used-CD store) or KISS's Todd McFarlane-anointed comic book or shelling out allowance money for the never-ending reunion tour, will connect with the '70s references.
And it's equally unlikely that KISS's original crowd will tolerate such low-rent teen-flick high jinks. Anyone who has had a driver's license for more than two years has seen this territory covered better in such films as Rock 'n' Roll High School, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Dazed and Confused, the latter ending with a cathartic drive to Houston for some Aerosmith tickets. Detroit Rock City actually sits on the food chain somewhere between Rock 'n' Roll High School and its 1990 "sequel," Rock 'n' Roll High School Forever, meaning: KISS ain't the Ramones, but at least Edward Furlong ain't no Corey Feldman. But just barely.