Adam Rifkin's raucous comedy Detroit Rock City revisits the KISS era with great affection.
Today's teenagers didn't invent sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, although some are convinced that combining those pastimes into an unholy trinity is entirely their idea. Detroit Rock City is a reminder to Marilyn Manson's Goth disciples that KISS opened the door to teenage damnation first and wider, and made it seem a lot more fun.
In 1978, the sight of four musicians in hellish costumes, spitting blood and setting lewd examples, baited parents into convulsions. Being grounded at home had meaning. Kids still pretended to listen. Suicide wasn't an option because KISS preached that to be evil was to live, with Gene Simmons' infamous tongue firmly planted in his painted cheek. KISS wanted us alive for the next party.
Detroit Rock City revisits that era with great verve and abundant affection. That's to be expected, with Simmons serving as co-producer and the band reunited for a concert cameo. What is surprising about Adam Rifkin's raucous comedy is how much it respects being young, gifted and foolish in any generation. The movie is nostalgic, of course, but also very contemporary. Then and now, Rifkin wishes everybody would just lighten up.
Nobody takes it easier than Hawk (Edward Furlong), except when he's belting out off-key versions of KISS songs with his garage-band buddies. The boys are pumped because the band is road-tripping to Detroit after school tomorrow for a KISS concert. A car has been borrowed, weed has been rolled, and Jam (Sam Huntington) has the tickets safely stored away. Smooth sailing.
Not for long. Jam's ultra-religious mother (Lin Shaye) discovers the tickets and cruelly destroys them. The boys don't have time to suffer. With a divine stroke of luck, dim-witted Trip (James DeBello) wins four front-row tickets to the show. Party's on, dudes. That is, until fate tosses these rock 'n' roll warriors for another loop. There's one hour left before showtime, so the boys split up for one last, desperate attempt to see their idols.
Until that point, Detroit Rock City has been a decent stoner's scrapbook, something less than Dazed and Confused and more accomplished than Half Baked. The jokes are typically juvenile, yet with a softer edge that feels right for the more innocent _ although certainly not chaste _ 1970s. Even when road rage interrupts their trip, the band retaliates in a manner that is tame by today's standards.
When the boys go their separate ways, though, Detroit Rock City evolves into an effective coming-of-age tale. Not as deep or expertly done as American Graffiti, but just as universal in its themes of budding independence. Left to their own devices for the first time, and in a strange town, Hawk and his pals begin shaping their boundaries of what they will and won't do. It's all very farcical and crude, but, like American Pie, there is a sweetness underneath the hi-jinks.
Furlong is uncommonly relaxed in his role, dropping the sullen affectations that mark most of his work. Huntington is an expressive actor that we should see plenty of in future films, and DeBello's goofy grin lights up his early scenes and makes his more pensive moments work. Among the lampooned adults, Shaye is a standout. She works without the grotesque makeup used in There's Something About Mary and Kingpin, and Shaye proves that her comic abilities are more than latex-skin deep.
Even a crisis like this affords time for romance, and Detroit Rock City has a firmly feminine angle underneath its adolescent sexism. A hitchhiker named Christine (Natasha Lyonne) doesn't take any guff from the boys, and Beth (Melanie Lynskey) has a long-standing crush on Jam that never feels exploited. KISS fans will appreciate their names, borrowed from the band's song titles. Rifkin enjoys dropping such inside references into his movie, keeping it buzzing with rapid cuts, split screens and sonic sound effects.
Detroit Rock City takes the vitality of a four-minute KISS recording and kneads it into 95 minutes of unapologetic anarchy. Even when he stoops for laughs _ projectile vomiting and religion bashing are the most vivid examples _ Rifkin keeps us convinced that these kids are all right, just a bit rowdy. Rocking and rolling all night and partying every day will do that.
Detroit Rock City
Director: Adam Rifkin
Cast: Edward Furlong, Sam Huntington, Natasha Lyonne, James DeBello, Lin Shaye, Giuseppe Andrews, Shannon Tweed
Screenplay: Carl V. Dupre
Rating: R; profanity, sexual situations, violence
Running time: 95 min.