Detroit Rock City

(Adam Rifkin, USA, 1999)


The cultural snobs among us have been quick to colonise the new wave of popular teen movies that emerged mostly from America in the late ’90s.

Films like Election (1999) and Rushmore (1998) are deemed respectable teen flicks because they use sophisticated tricks like irony and hip nostalgia. Cruel Intentions (1999) modernises a literary classic (Dangerous Liaisons), so it earns brownie points. Anything with Claire Danes in it is immediately close enough to television’s thirtysomething to register as moody and well intentioned.

American Pie (1999) poses a greater challenge to middlebrow taste: the slightest whiff of a Porky’s (1982) or Animal House (1978) influence causes some reviewers to miss its charm and sweetness. In fact, American Pie is in many respects a model of the genre: in it, trashy, vulgar elements cheerfully cohabit with liberal, progressive ideas about sex, gender and relationships.

However, once the serious UK magazine Sight and Sound came out in defence of American Pie and a select, redeemable portion of the teen movie genre, true devotees of the form realised they needed to up the ante. What new title would serve to crystallise instantly the vast differences in taste, appreciation and tolerance among film fans?

Look no further, for Detroit Rock City is here. You can be forgiven for not knowing that this movie even exists – it is not the kind of product which garners display ads in the quality press, or is pitched to professional critics for their approval.

It needs to be pointed out immediately that Detroit Rock City is a period piece about the hysterical teen love for one particular band: KISS. Although it wildly sends up almost everything about the ’70s, the one monument that it plainly reveres is KISS. This almost certainly has something to do with the fact that Gene Simmons is numbered among the film’s producers.

There have been some fine teen movies about the boundless hysteria and crazed genius involved in being a pop fan. Robert Zemeckis’ splendid I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) and the unjustly forgotten Australian effort Secrets (1992) both explored this terrain. But at least they were cagey enough to centre their mania on The Beatles, who were long ago canonised as art rather than junk.

Detroit Rock City skates on much thinner ice where cultural snobbery is concerned – but it doesn’t give a damn. Likewise, it is coarser and far more vulgar than American Pie – judging by its protracted vomiting scene, or the vignette involving a young couple losing their mutual virginity in a church confessional booth.

As a narrative, the film borders on complete incoherence – particularly when our KISS-loving heroes, Hawk (Edward Furlong), Lex (Guiseppe Andrews), Trip (James DeBello) and Jam (Sam Huntington), decide to split up solely so that director Adam Rifkin can frenetically intercut four separate, whacky, night-time adventures.

Rifkin has spent a career in pursuit of oddball high concepts – like a homage to The Breakfast Club (1985) with lesbianism added (Never on Tuesday [1988]) or a grotesque, gothic satire of the world of stand-up comedy (The Dark Backward [1991]). His films are always lumpy hybrids of wildly different genres, fads and styles. Here, for a change, the mish-mash really works.

With its never-ending stream of loud soundtrack songs, tirelessly zany camera angles, hyper-exuberant acting and relentless, high-pace montage, Detroit Rock City seems designed to irritate those sensitive viewers who complain that movies these days resemble feature-length music video clips. Actually, that analogy is not quite exact: watching the film is more like being imprisoned inside a noisy, ever-flashing pinball machine.

But you have to love a film so grossly energetic and outrageous: a film in which a rigidly conservative Mom (Lin Shaye) is traumatised by the sound of the KISS disc slipped inside her favourite Carpenters album, and boys belt each other silly (shades of Fight Club [1999]) in order to scam their way into a concert.

In many respects, this is the low-class, pre-feminist, anti-intellectual version of another ’70s-era extravaganza, Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine (1998). The difference is evident in the films’ respective attitudes towards sexual politics: where Velvet Goldmine was militantly queer, Detroit Rock City generates much rough humour from KISS fans accusing disco ducks (and vice versa) of being fags.

It is useless to scour this film for a lucid point of view on the teen madness it depicts (as in Fast Times at Ridgemont High [1982]), or an authentic reflection of ’70s lifestyles (as in Dazed and Confused [1993]).

Beyond the haircuts and clothes, its young stars seem scarcely able to transcend their too-’90s selves. But this is in line with the movie’s deepest message, evident when KISS take to the stage in the finale to show they have never aged: arrested adolescence, stoked by pop culture, is a never-ending party.

© Adrian Martin December 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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