"Detroit Rock City"

Shout it out loud: You'll be in sweet pain after a retro glimpse at four kids smoking through the '70s heyday of Kiss.

Published August 13, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

There's something incredibly touching, and energizing, about garage rock bands. The sight of a bunch of kids jumping around on a makeshift stage, cigarette butts dangling precariously from their underage lips, doing their own freestyle reading of what it must mean to be Keith or Pete or Joey Ramone, seems as good an affirmation as any of the indestructibility of rock 'n' roll. There's an early sequence in Adam Rifkin's "Detroit Rock City" that riffs beautifully, casually, on that theme. His four lead characters, suburban teenage boys circa 1978, murder the hell out of a Kiss number in a basement littered with beer cans and copies of Mad magazine and Hustler, their very ignorance of their own indescribable badness its own kind of bliss. The sequence won me over immediately. The boys could be as crude and annoying as they wanted through the rest of the movie -- I was prepared for the cheap puke jokes, the dumb adolescent misogyny, and I got them -- but I would go to the mat to defend their right to rock.

As it turned out, though, they pretty much lost me. "Detroit Rock City" -- the story of how those aforementioned lads battle all kinds of misfortunes in their effort to see their idols, Kiss, in concert at Detroit's Cobo Hall -- is well-intentioned and affectionate, a movie that understands unequivocally, without condescension, how much rock 'n' roll can mean when you're young. And Rifkin cares enough about his characters that, while he may poke fun at them now and then, he never turns their devotion into a silly joke.

But despite Rifkin's good intentions, "Detroit Rock City" never finds its footing. It's not a full-on go-for-broke love letter to rock 'n' roll (the way, say, Iain Softley's "Backbeat" is), or a broad, joyous spoof (like "Rock 'n' Roll High School"), but something stuck awkwardly in between. It takes great care to get the clothes (French-cut T-shirts, saggy Army jackets) and assorted period touches (red clear-plastic bongs, TV footage of the earnestly droopy Jimmy Carter) down cold in order to hook an older, nostalgic audience. And as a kind of period piece, it succeeds well enough. But "Detroit Rock City" also wants to be a teen comedy, and in a season of unusually enjoyable (and often surprisingly smart) teen movies like "10 Things I Hate About You" and the sweet-tempered and unfairly maligned "American Pie," it's inferior. Its toilet humor (especially a sequence in which one of the boys pukes endlessly into a bartender's pitcher) seems grafted on, a desperate grab for grossed-out yuks, and a scene in which one character defies his disapproving mother (the message boils down to little more than a dopey update of that '50s chestnut "Parents, listen to your children!") seems curiously plopped in to give the movie some emotional ballast.

But who needs emotional ballast when you've got Kiss? You don't have to work hard to make the '70s seem cartoonish, and "Detroit Rock City" spoofs the era in all the most obvious, wooden ways. (It isn't in the same league with Andrew Fleming's crisp little comedy "Dick," another '70s-era picture that, with its pop-art colors and sly script, is cartoonishly effective.) The movie features the inevitable war between the Kiss fans and the disco fans, shows us a lunchroom filled with boys in Scooby Doo haircuts and girls with Farrah Fawcett feathers, slaps us back into one of those faceless '70s high schools with walls painted in that ostensibly soothing hospital green. But there's no real style to its sendup, and there's not much of a story to follow between the times you're chuckling over the hairdos and Kiss belt buckles. At best it's a kind of show-off moviemaking, with lots of fake energy generated by snazzy but pointless split-screen effects and popping noises to coordinate with some of the rapid camera cuts.

Rifkin and screenwriter Carl V. Dupri try to give each of the four lead actors enough distinctive characteristics so they don't all run in together: Hawk (Edward Furlong) is upfront but also deep-down shy; Trip (James DeBello) is cluelessly spaced out; Lex (Giuseppe Andrews) is responsible. But Sam Huntington as Jam, the sensitive kid whose mother is a rigid and controlling religious fanatic, is the only one who is distinctive. He's wonderful in a scene where he's seduced (in the confessional, no less) by the classmate who's had a crush on him for years. (Her name, naturally, is Beth, played by Melanie Lynskey of "Heavenly Creatures" and "Ever After.") Jam can't believe his ears or his eyes when she confesses her love for him: Previously, he's been preoccupied mostly with learning the drum parts to Kiss songs, but his face lights up with unabashed awe when he realizes that the "getting the girl" part of the rock 'n' roll equation is about to fall into place for him. Lynskey has a lush, voluptuous sweetness, and together she and Hamilton set a little fire burning in one corner of the movie. Similarly, the wonderful Natasha Lyonne, as Christine (natch), a disco chick in a chubby fur jacket, jump-starts the picture whenever she appears. She cuts down the four male leads with her wisecracking put-downs, but Lyonne -- an actress who hasn't yet had the chance to prove all she's capable of -- softens her character's sharp lines so they stop just short of being cruel. When the boys bombard her with the brilliant and unassailable logic that "disco sucks," she replies that good music is good music, no matter what type it is -- and predicts confidently that someday even Kiss will put out a disco record. Even with the benefit of hindsight ("I Was Made for Loving You" hit the charts in 1979), she's an authority you don't dare distrust.

The other leads don't fare as well. It always seems as if there's some great, deep thought churning around in Furlong's brain, but you're never given any clue as to what it might be: It appears to be depth manufactured only for effect. DeBello gets laughs by being bumbling and dorky, but his character is also given the most mean-spirited lines and motivation (like the idea of beating up some little kids to take their Kiss tickets) just so he can undergo the biggest transformation (he becomes a hapless hero). And Andrews might actually have something going on under that floppy forelock, but it's hard to know what. His slouchy mannerisms are vaguely charming, but they don't amount to much in the long run.

And there's no plot to speak of, nothing to shore up the wobbly characters. When the action lags, Rifkin hammers on the idea of turning the story into a farce, but the effect is too heavy-handed to be funny. The movie lurches into action when Jam's mother (Lin Shaye, in a shrill, overdone performance, playing a character ripped off directly from John Waters' "Hairspray"), a Catholic fanatic who believes Kiss make the devil's music, gets hold of the boys' tickets and sets them aflame, going so far as to light one of her ever-present cigarettes with them. She also packs Jam off to a strict boarding school ("St. Bernard's Veil of Tears"); the other boys head out in Lex's mother's Volvo to rescue him -- and, with any luck, replace their concert tickets -- meeting up with a car full of disco freaks on the way. (It's emblematic of the movie's clunky humor that the disco guys are little more than monosyllabic mooks -- it's not as if the Kiss fans some of us knew in high school were all candidates for NASA or anything.) With the help of a 'shroom-laced pizza, they spring Jam and set out on their odyssey to get into the show, a mild adventure that includes negotiating with sleazy scalpers, climbing flimsy backstage scaffolding and (for one of them) servicing an older woman.

Although the legendary specter of Kiss hovers benevolently over the whole of "Detroit Rock City," the band appears only briefly, in the film's last few minutes, in a flashily fun concert performance that includes lots of shooting flames and tongue unfurling. The music is used beautifully throughout "Detroit Rock City" -- in particular, there's a school chase scene that's edited nicely against the Runaways' "School Days."

There are moments in "Detroit Rock City" that work nicely, making the movie's shortcomings that much more frustrating. When the four boys finally reach Detroit, driving along among a throng of Kiss fans, they're entranced by the sight of a lit-up Kiss sign: The scene around them is like fairyland for rock kids. In moments like that -- as well as that early basement-rocking sequence -- Rifkin proves that he's right in tune with the power of rock 'n' roll. But in the end, "Detroit Rock City" doesn't have what it takes to "rock and roll all nite." It poops out at about 11, and that's way too early -- even for a school night.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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