Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
New Line, widescreen 2.35:1/16x9, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC] & Dolby Surround, subtitles: English, single side-dual layer, 23 chapters, rated R, 95 min., $24.98, street date 12/21/99.
Directed by Adam Rifkin. Starring Edward Furlong, Giuseppe Andrews, James DeBello, Sam Huntington, Lin Shaye, Melanie Lynskey.
For years, the teenage rock comedy genre has lain mostly dormant. But Detroit Rock City revisits the fun-loving format with a raucously funny yet surprisingly touching fable about the age-old adolescent quest for girls, good times, hot tunes and the intoxicating lure of freedom.
From New Line Cinema comes a coming-of-age story that rocks four worlds. Edward Furlong, Giuseppe Andrews, Sam Huntington and newcomer James De Bello star in the story of four Midwestern High Schoolers on an unstoppable quest to snag a quartet of KISS concert tickets. Over the course of one magical night, each undergoes a harrowing and hilarious experience as their insatiable desire to see their favorite band is pitted against authoritarian nightmares, parental hypocrisy, trials of conscience and the persistent influence of disco. What begins as the passionate pursuit of a rock 'n' roll fantasy turns into a series of hair-pin turns and comic misadventures with one over-riding goal: the liberty to pursue their own dreams.
Using a fast-paced, dizzying style that serves as the visual equivalent of the hammering riff, director Adam Rifkin captures not only a humorous nostalgia for the 70's but the eternal charms of living at maximum volume.
My generation got the shaft. Folks who grew up in the Fifties had their generation marked by a classic, American Graffiti. Folks who grew up in the Sixties had their generation marked by another classic (though less well-known), I Wanna Hold Your Hand.
So what do those of us who grew up in the Seventies get?
Detroit Rock City.
I demand a generational recount!
Of course, since I turned 13 in 1980, I suppose I straddle decades and should probably cast my lot with the Eighties. Still, I'm clearly a member of one target audience for DRC. It takes place in 1978 and concerns some fanatical KISS fans. Hey, I was a fanatical Kiss fan in 1978! I'm a part of the demographic that's supposed to look back on those years and smile as I think of how much I loved KISS.
Unfortunately, I look back on that part of my life and cringe. To test any potential KISS nostalgia I may feel, I went with some friends to see KISS during their successful 1996 reunion tour. (KISS never broke up, but this was the first time in 17 years that all four original members took part, and it was the first time since 1982 that they donned their famed makeup.)
The show sucked. Granted, I didn't expect a triumph, but I got much, much less than that. They sounded terrible, the flashy gimmicks were silly and pathetic, and the music largely stunk; KISS has a few songs that chug pretty well ("Rock and Roll All Night", "Strutter"), but not many. So much for reliving the past. All I know is that while I did indeed love KISS during October 1978 - which is when DRC takes place - I'm eternally overjoyed that six months later I discovered the Beatles; I don't think I ever listened to another KISS album again, and I never looked back.
I suppose it's ironic that the band that overtook KISS in my heart inspired I Wanna Hold Your Hand, a movie that strongly resembles DRC. Both pictures show a group of teenagers who are desperate to witness a live performance by their idols. In IWHYH, it's the Beatles legendary gig on The Ed Sullivan Show, whereas DRC features the kids heading to see a KISS concert in Detroit.
However, where IWHYH was witty, giddy, sweet and fun, DRC never rises above the level of smarmy trash. This is a comedy with no humor which depends on toilet jokes to try to make us laugh. Didn't work for me!
DRC follows in the footsteps of other gross-out comedies like There's Something About Mary and American Pie. Frankly, I hated TSAM and I thought AP was good but not great. However, both of those look like genius compared to DRC. The film is consistently crass, crude and nasty. I found nothing of interest or amusement in it and I was happy when it ended.
As repeatedly demonstrated during the DVD's supplements, the filmmakers seem badly deluded about their movie. They all appear to feel that DRC is a sweet, charming "coming of age" picture that accurately depicts teen life. Buh? I must have missed those scenes. From where I sat, it looked like offensive, hateful trash.
DRC is so simple-minded that its idea of cleverness is to name two of the female characters Beth and Christine. That's supposed to be a witty inside joke since "Beth" and "Christine 16" are well-known KISS songs. Wacky!
You know the only time I felt even vaguely amused during this movie? When a little boy shouts, "KISS sucks!" It's funny because it's true. (If you watch DRC through the end of the credits, you'll see an alternate take of this line; it's funnier if you hear director Adam Rifkin discuss it during his audio commentary.)
I found myself irked by the simple premise of the film. The movie shows our four protagonists as they take a road trip from Cleveland to Detroit to see KISS at Cobo Hall. This would make sense if KISS were not to play Cleveland, but they certainly would have done so; as such, the boys should have seen them in their hometown. Why make that trip? I guess because there isn't much of a movie in showing them take the bus across town, plus the filmmakers thought it would be cool to connect the movie to a famous KISS song.
At the risk of sounding completely anal, I checked out a website that lists KISS concert dates through the years. KISS played no Detroit shows in October 1978. In fact, they played no shows at all that year after May. They did play Detroit in January 1978, though that was at Olympia Stadium. Those shows took place two weeks after they performed in Cleveland. (In what seems to have been a KISS tradition, they played in Detroit every January from 1976 through 1978.)
Okay, I recognize this is pretty nitpicky, but why not have the film take place prior to one of the January shows in any of those years? It would have worked just as well! At least then it would have offered some historical accuracy.
Yeah, I know no one looks at DRC as offering a true record of the times; it's just supposed to be a fun and frivolous "coming of age" movie that happens to involve KISS. However, since I found no entertainment in the film itself, I had plenty of time to consider other issues, and the factual mistakes irked me.
This problem seemed especially irritating since during the supplements, the filmmakers all strongly emphasize their commitment to accuracy. They discuss all the pains they made to ensure that only KISS materials that actually existed in 1978 would appear in the movie. Great, but that alleged effort should have extended to other facets of the film. One song featured in the picture - David Naughton's "Makin' It" - didn't exist yet. Nor did Deney Terrio's claim to fame, "Dance Fever"; a reference to Terrio is made in the film, but since his show hadn't yet appeared, there's no reason any of the characters would know who he was or connect him to disco as they do. Again, these mistakes aren't huge, but they add up and also seem really bothersome when one encounters the filmmakers' bragging about accuracy.
Point blank: Detroit Rock City is an absolutely terrible movie. As it deserved, it completely flopped at the box office with a gross of a whopping $2 million! That means that maybe 400,000 people saw the movie, or an average of about 8000 folks per state! (A friend of mine - who coincidentally lives near Cleveland - wanted to see it during its second weekend. However, he couldn't; it had already disappeared from theaters! Now that's a flop!)
One more example of how out of touch with reality some of these filmmakers seem to be: not only do they appear convinced that DRC was a fine motion picture, but they also grant it much greater stature than it deserves. At one point, someone during the cast and crew audio commentary mentions that one minor character - security guard "Elvis" - has become something of an "icon." Icon?! That could only happen if someone had actually seen the stupid movie. Icon status is something that befalls popular, well-known characters like the Fonz or Austin Powers, not some third-rate loser in an amazingly unsuccessful movie.
As proof that New Line are the best DVD-producing studio around, even an utter disaster - both financially and artistically - like DRC has inspired a pretty terrific DVD. The film appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions.
Frankly, the picture looks fantastic. There's nary a flaw to be seen. Sharpness is crisp and detailed, with almost no evidence of shimmering or jagged edges. The print used seems clean and lacked any signs of grain, marks, speckles, scratches or digital artifacts. Colors consistently seemed wonderfully saturated, with many bright, vivid hues to be found. Black levels appeared deep and rich, and shadow detail seemed accurate and proper. All in all, it's a truly terrific-looking disc.
DRC offers a Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix that also works very well. The audio tends toward the front channels and provides a very nice soundstage. The three front speakers separate the sounds neatly but still have them blend together well. As one would expect, music is the focus of this mix and it comes across quite well. The music sounds somewhat erratic just due to the quality of the original recordings but appears clean and dynamic, with clear highs and some tight bass.
Dialogue always seems intelligible and natural; even scenes that were dubbed integrate neatly into the mix. Effects are clear and lack distortion. As mentioned, the mix tends heavily toward the front channels, but the rears receive frequent usage as well; it's just at a somewhat lower volume level. Split surround effects appear only on occasion, but the rears add a lot to the effectiveness of the music. I was a little reluctant to confer an "A-" rating on this mix just because it didn't demonstrate great surround usage, but I did so because the entire track seems so well-balanced and cohesive.
DRC contains a nice variety of supplemental materials. First up are three - count 'em! Three! - audio commentaries. Most tantalizing has to be the track from all four members of KISS. Possibly deflating fact: this commentary does not offer all four men gathered together in the same room. Instead, it's actually comprised of four separate interviews. The first comes from Gene Simmons and sounds like a fairly typical narrative; it was also the only track recorded in a studio. The other three guys were all interviewed by associate producer Tim Sullivan in phone conversations.
I enjoyed these chats as the men elaborated on KISS history and what they thought of the movie. Appropriately, these tracks don't even attempt to be scene specific, which would have made no sense since the band had so little to do with the film. Instead, we hear lots of anecdotes and personal information. Simmons offers the best data, but Peter Criss also is warm and entertaining. Ace Frehley seems kind of dopey but cheerful, while Paul Stanley comes across as a bit distant and reserved; I least liked his segment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stanley's piece was the shortest of the four; his lasted for about 17 minutes, whereas each of the other three took at least 23 minutes.
While these tracks were generally informative and enjoyable, one consistent nuisance was the fawning, factually-challenged presence of Sullivan. He clearly thinks KISS are the greatest band ever, and I'm happy for him - really! I'm not being snotty! But he unfortunately spreads his bias to apply to the world at large and he appears to believe that KISS are the most popular and successful band ever. He makes a huge deal about how KISS are the only group to have two movies to their credit (the first being 1978's TV film KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, an epic so lousy that I hated it even back then). Sullivan also raves about how no other act could have inspired a movie such as DRC that focusses on the mania of the band's fans.
Buh? Many, many musical acts have made movies, from the Beatles to the Monkees to the Spice Girls; KISS have done nothing special, especially when one considers that they've never starred in a theatrical film (unlike the others). Many, many others acts have inspired movies, as well. Off the top of my head, I can think of four different pictures about the Beatles, including I Wanna Hold Your Hand, the film that clearly was a template for DRC (despite what Sullivan thinks). Sullivan's bizarre interpretation of history - which spreads somewhat to the band members, especially the rather self-important Simmons and Stanley - seems unfortunate and misguided.
Another track features a cast of thousands. Okay, maybe not that many folks, but close. Actually, it's eleven cast and crew members. We hear from all four leads except Edward Furlong, plus some supporting actors (Lyn Shaye, Shannon Tweed, Melanie Lynskey, Miles Dougal, and Richard Hillman) plus Tim Sullivan, screenwriter Carl Dupre, and editor Peter Schink. Whew! It's a crowded track, but it's nicely edited and generally compelling as the group provide a lot of interesting details and anecdotes. Favorite part: hearing some of the cast mock obsessive KISS fans. You'll have to listen to the commentary to witness the disgusting details...
The final commentary comes from director Adam Rifkin on his own. This is a pretty good track that concentrates on a wide variety of issues that relate to the film. Rifkin seems witty and engaging and supplies a good monologue. While he shares the same disease that convinced everyone involved with the piece that it's a good movie, he nonetheless seems more realistic; Rifkin actually mentions the fact that the film bombed, and unlike myopic Tim Sullivan, he acknowledges the influence of rock films like I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Rock 'n' Roll High School. Rifkin's track is the most conventional of the three but ultimately probably the most consistent.
Detroit Rock City includes two "behind the scenes" documentaries. The more conventional of these is called "Miscellaneous Shit" and runs for about 37 minutes. This program loosely tells how the film was made through a mixture of interviews and on-set shots. It's a pretty good piece, though it lacks much cohesion. Still, it offers an entertaining look at the movie; it's actually much more interesting than the film itself (though that doesn't say much).
Much odder is the other documentary, "Look Into the Sun", which lasts for about 8 minutes. This strange program was shot on video by cast members (mainly James DeBello) and edits together some random images that are connected by little sound and video effects. It's mildly amusing but pretty nonsensical.
The DVD features five different deleted scenes that run for a total of 13 minutes. These are generally just extended versions of existing pieces. Most interesting is one between Edward Furlong and Shannon Tweed that radically changes the tone of their encounter.
One of these deleted scenes also includes an alternate video angle option. When used, you can view the audition tapes for Sam Huntington and Melanie Lynskey; their auditions were for the scene shown, and are edited to correspond to it. This option is a lot of fun and is well-executed.
A final scene offered in the "cutting room floor" area is called "Other Movie" and is allegedly from an unfinished film that was to be shot simultaneously along with "DRC". Director Rifkin introduces this piece by saying that they wanted to make an improvised experimental movie that would be made during down-time; that way they could have two films for the price of one. Unfortunately (?), they only had time to shoot this one segment. I don't know if this is true or a put-on, but the presented scene is pretty dopey. The story's funny, though.
Additional parts of the DVD offer some cool features. "Rock and Roll All Night" features an alternate angle option. One pick lets you see the actual film scene in which the boys play "RARAN" in their band "Mystery", while the second angle lets you watch the song's recording. The track was sung by the actors but played by a band called The Devil Roosevelt; shots of both groups are intercut on the second angle. This piece was pretty fun, though got a little redundant after a while.
Probably the most appealing extra-angle feature offers the film's concert performance of Detroit Rock City from four - count 'em! Four! - different cameras. This is a tremendously cool option and one that I hope to see duplicated in the future. Imagine - you can edit your own video!
Speaking of videos, DRC includes two examples of this genre. We see Ramones/Runaways wannabes the Donnas do KISS classic "Strutter" and Everclear play Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back In Town". Both clips are performance pieces that intercut some "wacky" material. The Donnas allegedly play a school talent show and we also see them romp around the school in some situations similar to those seen in the film itself. Everclear's clip presents shots of them today and in Seventies garb in a premise that seems muddled but essentially appears to have our film's protagonists trying to get backstage at the show. Both videos are good but not great; still, they're more fun than DRC itself.
One unusual feature of the DVD is "Song Express". This nine minute piece is apparently taken from a series of instructional videos that will teach you how to play different songs. Here we can learn to wail "Rock and Roll All Night" on guitar. I don't have a guitar, so I can't say whether it's good or not, but it's a cool extra.
Finally, we also find the lame theatrical trailer (which is truth in advertising, I guess) and filmographies for 14 cast members and six crew members. While that sounds good numerically, these are simply listings taken straight from IMDB. If you're interested, you'd be better off just checking out that original source; it's a lot more informative.
I don't know if it counts as a supplement, but New Line introduce an innovative menu system here. It's an audio plan which offers sound commands from cast members in lieu of text details. While this seems intriguing, I think it's one of those things that unnecessarily complicates simple access. Lots of DVDs appear so interested in making these basic functions more elaborate, but you know what? They just tend to get in the way. I may be in the minority, but I prefer static menus - animated ones slow things down and are only briefly entertaining - and these audio commands in no way changed my mind. Still, I commend New Line for trying something different, and since they offer text menus as well, I'm satisfied with the execution.
DRC offers a bevy of DVD-ROM features. Since I still don't have a DVD-ROM drive, I can't discuss them, but here's a listing:
Normally, my recommendation would be a slam-dunk. Detroit Rock City is an absolutely abysmal little film; if I never see it again, it'll be too soon. Still, the supplements on this DVD make it so much fun that I can't hate it. I loathed the movie, but I'm probably going to keep this disc in my collection. If fantastic extras are enough for you, this DVD deserves your purchase, but don't expect to like it because of the movie; it's one of the crummiest pieces of dreck I've seen in a long time.