The Vintage Reviews: Detroit Rock City 

DR Kiss

Detroit Rock City is a movie overshadowed by its influences as well as what would proceed it. It’s a period piece road comedy about four friends in 1978 driving to Detroit for a KISS concert with every roadblock imaginable thrown their way. It’s Rock and Roll High School meets Mallrats, the heights of the 70’s and 90’s colliding. There’s the broad comedy and classic rock score and directed like a comic book as if you’re whooshing from colorful panel to panel. There’s enough weird moments for me to get behind it but when you think that Dazed and Confused had come out 6 years earlier being the best 70’s movie of the 90’s, this falls short. Not every bold choice I agree with and I may not find all the big slap stick funny but it’s committed to being strange and has remarkably little to do with KISS for a KISS movie so I can’t complain.

The main reason I checked out this movie because it appeared to have the essence of Fanboys, a favorite of mine which is very similar in concept you just replace the nouns and dates to four friends in 1999 traveling to Lucas Ranch to steal Star Wars: Episode One. The film also stars Sam Huntington, who will be playing the same teen angst ridden role forever I guess. I may be in the minority for loving the forgotten Star Wars tribute movie but I can at least use it defend my case why I feel it excels over Detroit Rock City. One complication is the characters’ ages. I love teen movies, and so does this film. There’s heavy influence of the 80’s classics like The Breakfast Club when Lex (Giuseppe Andrews) is climbing over a vent as it plummets to the ground while trying to break into the concert. There’s innocent jokes like that but then in contrast  contains strong sexual themes that feel inappropriate for a film about minors. Both Fanboys and Detroit Rock have a male strippers scene which I guess is a trope of male road movies. In Fanboys the friends’ van breaks down and they end up in a gay bar where they must strip if they want help (there’s not a ton of logic in either of these). In Detroit Rock, Hawk (Edward Furlong), in a desperate attempt for money to scalp tickets, he enters amateur stripping competition at city’s local Chippendales. The main difference between these two is one has an extremely underage boy. I’m on board with the Fanboy’s crew because they’re also supposed to be mid twenties and I’m not going to say no to a naked Jay Baruchel. But Furlong is supposed to be 16 taking his clothes off for adult women. It gets even more awkward when I woman propositions him for sex then gives him the money he “would have one in the contest.” I don’t know if Michigan has more lax statutory rape laws but that’s messed up especially if the gender roles were reversed. In comparison Fanboys has a scene where Windows (Baruchel) meets up on their journey with the girl he’s been online dating with and she turns out to be twelve and he rightfully freaks out. That movie is quite aware that “underage” is a phrase we should all know and isn’t just referring to women.    

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Women is a great way to segue into my next topic. These are both bro movies, the male bonding over a shared passion so the female characters are more parceled out. The upper hand Fanboys has is Kristen Bell who is an actual main character, one of the guys as well as a love interest. She is smarter, more resourceful and can kick all their asses. Detroit Rock provides a love interest closer toward the third act for each friend, some more fully formed than others, like innocent high school crush Beth (Melanie Lynskey) or disco dancer Christine (Natasha Lyonne). I like the female characters because they have some agency and stick up for themselves like Christine who squashes the boys’ advances who believe she should “put out” just because they gave her a ride. At the same time a lot of the women are damsels in distress when Christine is later rescued by Lex from being raped(?) by some chop shop mechanics or burn out Trip’s (James DeBello) air headed blonde who he saves from a convenient store robbery. It’s hard to complain about these characters when they have some of the most interesting actresses portraying them. If anything I want to see more of them. All fade away as the boys get closer to entering the concert. Storyline are unresolved but at the same time, this movie is about a KISS concert and the women are only B plots to the main event.

My overall critique in general is this movie has a really strong third act and if that section had been more of the film, I would have loved it. The first act mostly consists of Jam (Sam Huntington) feeling the wrath of his overzealous Christian mother portrayed by (Lin Shaye) who burns their KISS tickets (first setting the plot in motion) but also taking Jam to a boarding school in the next county which his friends must bust him out of. These wrenches in the story are resolved surprisingly quickly which makes me wonder why it’s even there. Hawk and the gang easily catch up with Jam in “the next county” and have no problem tricking the head priest so he can escape. It doesn’t help that it’s the least funny scene next the Hawk vomiting on stage for a Monty Python level of time. Plus closer to the beginning there’s a chase sequence with three of the boys and a gross school security guard, Elvis (Miles Dougal), which felt very Ferris Bueller but later Lex has another chase scene as the security guards at the concert are trying to catch him. I think one scene of a fat dude chasing a high schooler is enough and the latter felt more logical. The enjoyment of the third act is seeing the kids on their own adventures which I didn’t expect to be so strong because most films falter when the core group breaks up but here it worked because each scenario was like it’s own unique short. When they reconvene at the end for a momentous, unexpected solution, it was exciting as they each had grown with their arc but are still dumb friends.

I still prefer Fanboys over Detroit Rock because of its more cohesive narrative. Detroit Rock peaks and valleys throughout feeling both generic and specific at the same time. Fanboys is all about Star Wars, not a scene goes by that’s not steeped in reference or mirroring but the fact that these kids love KISS could really be replaced with any band. Which is fine because I didn’t want to have Gene Simmons shoehorned into scenes but makes the driving subject of the film seem unimportant. At times a bit over directed, you can sense the passion of the filmmaking and I applaud Adam Rifkin’s intentions. I’m fine adding it to the cult 90’s status in the vein of Empire Records or Can’t Hardly Wait of movies that take place all in one day and got the rights to some awesome songs. A wide range of characters underscore by Bowie and ELO is alright by me.  

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