The KISS fans of the 1970s were a lot like the Moonies: fervent and millions strong, but reviled by everyone outside the ranks of their own cult. Those naysayers won't find much to change their minds in "Detroit Rock City," a bungled attempt by director Adam Rifkin and writer Carl V. Dupre (both KISS Army veterans) to pay homage the halcyon days of their own flaming youth.
Coarse and joyless, their filmed paean to the era trades in silly slapstick and bathroom humor, bolstered by an ugly quartet of teen protagonists who exhibit all of the bad habits of the cast of "Dazed and Confused," but none of their gentle charisma.
United by a burning desire to see their masked idols in concert, the kids set off on an arena-bound romp of a road trip. Hardened stoner Trip (James De Bello) pulls pizza flecks out of his stringy hair long enough to shake down elementary-schoolers for elusive KISS tickets. Buddy Hawk (Edward Furlong) raises scalper's monies by competing in an amateur strip-off, but not before he drunkenly fills the hosting club's blender with his own vomit. With the help of pal Lex (Giuseppe Andrews), they liberate fourth wheel Jam (Sam Huntington) from a Catholic boarding school in time for the show. How? By spiking the priest's dinner with 'shrooms. Surely Rifkin and Dupre could have found better stand-ins than these slobs.
At least they get the trappings right. "Detroit's" art direction is a perfectly compiled collage of black-light posters, down jackets and feathered hairstyles. The soundtrack is equally mindful, mixing KISS classics with numbers by such comparatively obscure contemporaries as UFO and Angel.
A few snatches of self-deprecatory dialogue match the atmosphere of winking nostalgia. When the boys give a lift to a stranded disco queen (the underused but still marvelous Natasha Lyonne), the sassy Italian ends up smartly deflating their caveman sexism and musical Luddism. Even KISS, she posits, might one day jump on the dance bandwagon.
"If there's one thing that KISS will never do," she's dismissed, "it's a lame-ass disco song!" Of course they did -- just 12 months beyond the film's 1978 time frame.
That gag is certain to go right over the heads of the under-20 audience the film courts with its relentless juvenility. No adult could be target of the remaining verbal volleying, which consists almost entirely of anatomically-centered schoolyard taunts and tampon references. No surprise there; these dudes are taking their social cues from a band whose idea of a sweet nothing is "meet you in the ladies' room."
All but Jam, that is. A fledgling drummer who immerses himself in KISS trivia in order to avoid a painfully lonely adolescence, Jam is gradually revealed to be a bit smarter and nicer than his chums -- i.e., not quite a sociopath. He's about two years away from realizing that a mutual love of the "Shock Me" riff is no reason to remain in such poor company. Wherever he is today, I doubt he finds this movie a suitable tribute.