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Weekly Alibi Detroit Rock City

Gotta Lose Your Mind

By Michael Henningsen

AUGUST 23, 1999:  In the 1990s, KISS are the ultimate commodity. They command respect for marketing themselves out of Queens, N.Y., if not for their music -- timeless, senseless rock anthems that have reverberated throughout the past three decades (roughly) -- then for successfully reuniting all four original members once again and marching the infamous KISS Army back onto the battlefield. At stake isn't some cause as noble as those most wars are fought for: Instead, KISS -- not to mention legions of fans -- crusade against the shoegazing doldrums and retro ripoffs of corporate rock 'n' roll. Sounds frighteningly like punk rock's early days, doesn't it? It isn't. KISS are as corporate as they come. More savvy than the average band, able to leap political and social grandstanding in a single bound. That's why the kids loved them so much. It's why kids of all ages love them still.

The '90s isn't all about technological advances and Y2K. There's a good part of the '90s that's still about reckless abandon and reaching for the sky. Re-enter KISS. They've achieved Gold Record status more times than any band except the Beatles, and their reunion tour of 1996 was the highest grossing live show of that year. Why? KISS caught onto something long ago and never lost sight of it (well, maybe once or twice): People go to rock shows to escape reality, to transcend all the crap that muddles everyday existence. KISS give the people what they want. Who can fault them for that? So while the idea of a feature film about four teenage fans going to great lengths to see "the hottest band in the world" might seem ludicrous on the surface, there's really nothing all that silly about it. Simply put, KISS rule. After all, you don't see New Line Cinema making movies about Led Zeppelin. Or Pink Floyd. Or the Rolling Stones.

But Detroit Rock City isn't just about KISS. In fact, it has little to do with KISS the band, but a whole lot to do with the effect KISS had on a generation of music fans left disenfranchised and angry by the apathy inherent in disco. To fully understand the depth of devotion felt by KISS fans back in the '70s, you have to have been there. But in many ways, Detroit Rock City is the next best thing.

Considering the schlock element that has been the band's touchstone since their inception, Detroit Rock City is not what one might expect from a "band" movie. The pretense is straightforward: Four friends, Lex (Giuseppe Andrews), Trip (James De Bello), Hawk (Edward Furlong) and Jam (Sam Huntington) have been cheated out of seeing KISS live for the past three years. Finally, they manage to get their hands on four tickets to see KISS at Detroit's Cobo Hall. But beneath the roadtrip adventure plot and the glitter, glam and kabuki make-up, Detroit Rock City is a commentary piece on rock 'n' roll society. Any band, real or imagined, could have been an effective focal point. But KISS, if nothing else, have always represented the rock 'n' roll lifestyle at its most extreme.

There's never any doubt that Lex, Trip, Hawk and Jam will ultimately live their collective dream, however misguided it seems to their opposition -- bell-bottom-clad disco bullies, maniacal parents, high school security guards, roadies, concert security, etc. And the fact that much of the film consists of unlikely madcap situations that befall each of them on their journey never for a moment leads the audience to believe that their destiny is disappointment. Still, you cheer for them. You laugh with them. You feel their pain. And you probably look around the theater to determine whether or not anyone around you notices that you're visibly moved by their plight. You feel what it was like to be one of them, one of those kids who couldn't get enough of the whole idea of KISS, no matter how many comic books, posters, records and trading cards they could get their hands on. Movies that have that effect are the exception rather than the rule, and in that sense, Detroit Rock City succeeds masterfully.

The four leads are fully believable as fanatical KISS fans, aspiring rock musicians and teenage boys circa 1978. Jam's mother, Mrs. Bruce, is slightly overplayed by Lin Shaye (There's Something About Mary's Magda). But a brilliantly played cameo by porn king Ron Jeremy as a strip joint MC is enough to outweigh Shaye's over-the-top performance and the awkward appearance of B-movie sleaze star Shannon Tweed (KISS bassist Gene Simmons' real-life girlfriend) as a grown woman with an inexplicable taste for young boys with vomit on their breath. KISS, as it turns out, get little actual screen time. But that, in part, is exactly why Detroit Rock City manages to avoid being completely silly. Who wants to see 102 minutes of true-to-life "bandumentary"? If that's what you're after, rent Spinal Tap, or park yourself in front of the small screen for a VH-1 "Behind the Music" marathon.

Detroit Rock City is a refreshing surprise from start to finish, replete with a spectacularly well-thought out soundtrack (KISS, Blue Oyster Cult, AC/DC, Golden Earring, the Ohio Players, Hot Butter, the James Gang). It's a must-see for KISS fans, but has plenty of appeal even for people who hate the band. Especially for people who hate the band. It's a blast from the past that just about everyone who's ever chewed their fingernails waiting for a concert can relate to, with a finale that is absolutely the best three minutes of rock 'n' roll ever caught on film. You wanted the best? You've got the best!


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