Mrs. Bruce (Lin Shaye) comes down the stairs carefully holding a full glass of red wine. She rifles through her vinyl collection, selects one by The Carpenters, and gingerly places it on the record player. Reclining in her armchair, Mrs Bruce sips her massive glass of wine. Suddenly, unexpectedly, loud guitar music blares through the speakers. She jolts in shock, spilling wine flying all over her face and her white turtleneck sweater. She leaps up and covers her ears. After grasping and panicking to turn off the music, she breathlessly exclaims, “KISS! The devil’s music.”
Part road movie, part teen sex comedy, part gross-out stoner silliness, 1999’s Detroit Rock City is a very KISS movie. Set in 1978, it takes its name from the KISS song, follows four teenage KISS fanatics, and features (naturally) an appearance by KISS. Directed by Adam Rifkin and written by Carl V. Dupré, the film found a cult following among both the KISS Army and rock lovers who saw a little of themselves in the central characters.
In spite of its great potential and talented cast, Detroit Rock City failed to achieve the same commercial and critical success as like-minded nineties comedies, including Wayne’s World (1992) and American Pie (1999). While its successful peers were underlined by a sense of charming naïveté, Detroit Rock City’s dialogue often, unnecessarily, verges into cruel moments of over-the-top misogyny and homophobia. Combined with an extremely chaotic plot, it did not endear itself to the masses. Sometimes it tried a little too hard.
However, in its quieter, non-offensive moments, Detroit Rock City captures how it feels to love your favorite band to the extreme. How many of us called radio stations for ticket drawings and drove miles away for concerts? Pull the film apart, and there are moments of gold, thanks to the talented actors who give the material their everything.
Eddie Furlong plays Hawk, the group’s ringleader, who bristles with electric energy and frustration. It is this sparky cockiness that sets Furlong apart from the rest of his castmates. Sam Huntington contrasts him as Jam, the youngest of the group, with youthful vigor and honest hilarity. Jam does not appear as worn down as Hawk, or as sullen as Lex (Giuseppe Andrews), and he’s certainly not as stupid as Trip (James DeBello). He brings a lightness to the role, less angry testosterone than his friends. His character is perfectly matched and elevated by Melanie Lynskey as Beth.
Lynskey, a charismatic actor of great talent with a diverse filmography, displays her renowned likability in her brief but impactful role of Beth. Her first scene with Huntington has a gentle slapstick quality, made funnier by both characters’ whispered apologies and extreme politeness. Of all the characters in the movie, Beth is the one who harbors no preconceptions towards Sam and the music he likes. She only sees a boy she loves, who happens to like KISS. She is a touch of much-needed sweetness when things get too sour.
Sweetness does not apply to the earlier mentioned Mrs. Bruce, played with spectacular energy by Shaye. Better known as Cameron Diaz’s neighbor in There’s Something About Mary (1998), Shaye throws herself into portraying an extreme version of a mother shocked at their child’s choice of music. She is a walking contradiction, god-fearing and pious, speaking of sin, chain-smoking her way through the movie. There are hints that she was not always so extreme, made apparent in her fashionable clothes and Farrah flick, which never moves an inch out of place. Despite being set up as the movie’s villain, Shaye grounds the character with moments of humor and vulnerability that prevent her from becoming unbearable. You can’t help wondering what she is hiding, and if her KISS aversion was not always present. Was she once what her son and his friends refer to as a “Stella”?
”Stellas” are girls who prefer disco over rock n roll. The group doesn’t like Stellas, and Stellas don’t like them. As can be expected, a confrontation occurs, instigated by a moment involving a slice of pizza on a car windshield. The action leads to the entrance of Natasha Lyonne’s Christine, a fabulous ”Stella” with big hair, fur jacket, and tinted sunglasses, who ends up hitching a ride with the friends. Lyonne does what she can with the underused character with hilarious and endearing results – she’s like a disco version of Nadia Vulvokov from Russian Doll. In a more successful film, she would have been a praised style icon.
Sure, Detroit Rock City is not perfect. Less crazed, and with a couple of additional songs and tweaks, it could have found success as a KISS rock opera. Still, at its centre, amongst the noise, it’s a celebration of music with exaggerated versions of recognizable characters and teenage love for favorite bands. For 94 minutes, we are transported back to the seventies via some superb music, silly hijinks, and brilliantly funny women. And that’s something to be shouted out loud.
“Detroit Rock City” is currently a .99 rental on iTunes.