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Rock City (1999)
Detroit Rock City is the latest entry in a
fine film genre with a distinguished pedigree: cheesy movies about rock and roll. I
don't mean genuinely good films like Hard Day's Night or The Great Rock and Roll
Swindle: I'm talking instead about irresistible junk like Beyond the Valley of the
Dolls. Detroit Rock City has about the same relationship to Hard Day's
Night that its subject, bubbble-metal titans Kiss, has to the Beatles: it's fun,
silly, and really dumb.
Not that there's anything wrong with
that. The Ramones were featured in an even dumber movie, Rock and Roll High School,
that stands as one of the giddy pinnacles of teenage kicks. But then, the Ramones were a
great band. This matters in a film that climaxes with a concert appearance.
Detroit Rock City couldn't be
simpler. Four stoners from suburban Michigan have tickets to see Kiss in Detroit. They
lose them. They go anyway, and through all their struggles to find tickets, we all know
that they're going to make it into that concert hall by movie's end. Along the way they
each meet a girl and defend Kiss' honor against fundamentalist Moms and disco lovers. The
final twist that gets them into the concert is genuinely unexpected and very funny.
It's no insult to say that I can't
imagine a more entertaining evening for a stoned, fourteen year old Kiss fan. It's
essentially a live action cartoon peopled with comically grotesque adults--tyrannical Mom,
perverted priest--out to keep our boys away from the show. Director Adam Rifkin uses
frenetic jump cuts (inspired less by MTV than potheaded delayed response time) and garish
camera movements to goose the film throughout. The jokes are underscored with silly sound
effects. When all else fails, there's a constant background of stoner rock classics (Thin
Lizzy, AC/DC, Black Sabbath) to kick the movie back into gear.
Though the film is a Kiss vehicle,
the band's appeal lies in its otherworldliness: they wear Kabuki makeup and have
outsized stage personas. (The brief, embarrassing period in the '80's where they dropped
the makeup is conveniently forgotten by everyone--stripped of the bigger-than-life antics,
they were revealed as just another bunch of over-the-hill, spandex-clad bozos, America's
own unwitting Spinal Tap.) The band appears only as the main characters' raison d'etre
until the final concert scene.
The quartet of teenaged Kiss fans
thus becomes a variation on Hard Day's Night. Edward Furlong's Hawk is John
Lennon, the smart one. Sam Huntington's Jam is our Paul McCartney, doe-eyed, sweet and out
to do the right thing. Giuseppe Andrews' Lex is the shy, dark George Harrison stand-in,
though he looks disturbingly like Dee Dee Ramone. And James DeBello's Trip is the
Ringoesque comic relief, albeit a version derived from Sean Penn's Spiccoli from Fast
Times at Ridgemont High. The performances are charming and funny.
The movie is good-natured
throughout. Kiss' trademark sexism--this band crammed an unrelenting torrent of adolescent
misogyny onto vinyl--is played for laughs. The girls are given enough screen time to
register as something beyond sex toys. The constant gay-baiting is less easily dismissed,
though it's also perfectly in accord with the film's subject: our boys yell
"faggot" a lot because all sixteen year old boys do so. And to the film's
credit, when we're asked to enjoy seeing disco fans get beaten up, the targets of abuse
are shown to be inarguably heterosexual. It would have been very easy for the scene
to make the homophobia implicit in the late '70's "disco sucks" backlash
explicit and ugly.
The film's main problem lies in its
music. The soundtrack is larded with "classic" Kiss songs, and yet they're all
outshone by the modest likes of Sweet and Ted Nugent. Whenever Kiss is heard, the movie's
The final concert is the worst
example. This is a band that peaked 25 years ago, and just looks tired now. (They must be
thanking God every night that they hit on the Kabuki gimmick--the pancake makeup does
wonders to hide thirty years of hard living.) They're ridiculous, yet there's no sense
that they're in on the joke: the band never kids itself, never gives any sense that they
know it's a little unseemly for fifty year olds to scream paeans to jailbait onstage. Even
a dinosaur lounge act like the Rolling Stones has the good sense to kick off its shows
with "Start Me Up" these days, acknowledging the silliness of the whole
enterprise. The sweetness and fun of the teenagers' story gets lost in the wake of the
band's lame final number; one wishes they'd been fans of a better band.
- Gary Mairs