Our review of Detroit Rock City (1999) (Blu-ray), published April 18th, 2015, is also available.
Kiss the rules goodbye.
Detroit Rock City is a raucous teen comedy that mixes farce with an epic journey, sort of a Wizard of Oz meets Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It also borrows from the movie Rock and Roll High School in that the kids in the films are trying to get tickets to a concert by their favorite band, in this case Kiss. Kiss fans are known to be fanatical and loyal, even after 25 years, and in many ways this film is for them. This is now one of the highly esteemed Platinum Series discs from New Line, and of course is beautifully done and feature packed. Read on to see if this is one for you, but if you like rock and roll, it just might be.
First off, if you read the print reviews at the time of this film's release, you probably didn't see it. Critics were harsh to say the least. This is another instance where I think some of the "more esteemed" film critics just don't get it. This is a funny flick. It also works well as a period piece, very accurately depicting the late '70s from a teenager's standpoint. While the time and ages of the characters fits more into that of my younger brother, I was still around and aware of things then, and it's very accurate. The clothes, the people, the settings, and the war between rock and roll and disco of the time are dead on. Most of all, this is a story not overly exaggerated when it comes to the lengths the "Kiss Army" would go to in seeing their favorite band. The plot is exaggerated; pictured from the mind of a teenager, where problems seem overly large, priorities seem overly important, and they think that they will live forever. Even in this I'd call it accurate.
I wasn't a big Kiss fan back in the late '70s. Sure, I was a rocker, and hated disco, but Kiss was targeted at people a little younger than me. I favored Led Zeppelin, Blue Oyster Cult, and Judas Priest in those days. I didn't hate their stuff though, and time has been pretty kind to the band, enlisting new fans even now and having just completed what is supposedly their farewell tour (I'll believe that when I see it for sure). I look on the band better now than I did back then, and this movie will at the least make you see where their fans were coming from. Unfortunately, this movie sort of squeezed between the cracks; some of the thirty-somethings and older got left behind by it being a teen comedy, and many teens are too young to remember Kiss or got shut out from the R rating. That factor and the harsh reviews the film initially received, along with a glut of teen comedies last summer killed the film.
The story is pretty simple. Four guys are huge Kiss fans and have a basement band that plays their songs, badly. The biggest event of their lives is about to happen; going to see Kiss live in concert. But when one of their mothers, a religious fanatic who thinks Kiss is devil worship music, finds and burns their sacred tickets, things get desperate. The mother moves her son Jeremiah (called Jam, and played by Sam Huntington, Jungle 2 Jungle) to a religious boarding school called St. Bernard's Veil of Tears, and his friends Hawk (Edward Furlong, Terminator II, American History X), Trip (James DeBello, The '60s), and Lex (Giuseppe Andrews, Pleasantville, American History X, Never Been Kissed) have to rescue him, then get to Detroit and score tickets for the sold-out show. With the aid of some special mushrooms on a delivered pizza, they manage to make the stern priest (played with a flair by Joe Flaherty) see things in a whole different light, and it's off to Detroit they go. After a battle with some disco freaks (who get their just desserts, rock and roll rules! Uh…sorry, I digress) they reach the city and go their separate ways to try to find tickets. After separate threads where each must undergo obstacles and learn something along the way, a surprise ending opens the way to the Promised Land.
There is a lot of physical comedy, that like American Pie isn't afraid to reach into the absurd or scatological to get it. Gene Simmons, probably the most famous member of Kiss, was a producer on the film and was on hand to also see that their loyal fans were well represented, and was also the source of an incredible amount of Kiss memorabilia seen in the film. This was a movie more about the fans than Kiss itself, but their presence is seen throughout the picture, culminating in a live Kiss show at the end. The accuracy was maintained there as the band squeezed into their 1978 costumes and recreated the stage and effects of their '78 Love Gun tour. The director Adam Rifkin (The Chase, Dark Backward, writer of Small Soldiers, Mouse Hunt), writer, and most of the crew were big Kiss fans and gave their all to see that this became the definitive movie for Kiss fans.
Perhaps the high point of the film for me was the soundtrack. If you like '70s hard rock you'll be in heaven with some great 5.1 mixes of Kiss, Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Thin Lizzy, Van Halen, and many more. But I enjoyed the film as a whole, and got quite a few laughs during it, which may define this movie as a guilty pleasure for me. There were some great small parts in it such as from famous porn star Ron Jeremy (I know about his fame from…the commentaries, yeah that's it), Natasha Lyonne (American Pie, Slums of Beverly Hills) as a disco queen, and Shannon Tweed, whose scene with Edward Furlong is perhaps a bit creepy, and would have been considered horrid had the sexes of the actors been reversed. Another high point would be the constant memories brought up by seeing the 1970s everywhere you look. People who were there will definitely feel some nostalgia.
Even better than the film is the quality of the disc. There is a reason that the New Line Platinum Series has set the standard for everyone else to follow, and few can approach, much less match. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is superb. I can't say enough about it. It is simply without flaw. Not one instance of artifacting, loss of detail, edge enhancement problems, color bleeding, poor shadow, or anything else that could detract from it. Fleshtones are accurate, colors vivid, detail astounding. If every studio used the people who did the work on this transfer I'd be almost out of a job.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is first rate too, as I already alluded to. The mixes of the songs used throughout the film are expansive, using the rear channels to expand and add to the immersive experience. Bass extension in the music also will keep your subwoofer busy. While not all are true 5.1 remixes, the added bass and use of the surrounds enhance the songs very well. The discrete surrounds are used effectively for sound effects though, and dialogue remains centered, clear, and distinct.
If you're looking for extras, you've come to the right place. There is a plethora of supplemental material here. There are THREE commentary tracks; one from the director, one from many of the cast and crew, and one from the four members of Kiss themselves. The latter was the best of the lot in my opinion, as the members talked about the band, the past, drugs, disco, the film, and themselves. There are two features, one short and one about 30 minutes, deleted scenes, a trailer, and filmographies. There is still more. Some of this was experimental and the first I've seen done for DVD special features. There are two menu options; one normal text based and one audio menu where the cast members tell you what to hit to get to each option. There are 3 multi-angle features among the extras. The first is the "make your own video" where the full version of the song "Detroit Rock City" performed live is done and you can choose from 4 views to watch it in on the fly. You can watch the garage band Mystery manned by our stars make a mess out of "Rock and Roll All Night" or hit the angle button to see the recording session of the vocals. One of the deleted scenes sections shows either a lengthened version of the confessional scene (very irreverent!) or see the screen tests of the two actors in it by pressing the angle button. Also in this "Cutting Room Floor" section you can get a lesson on how to play "Rock and Roll All Night" on guitar from SongXpress. This is a simplified version of the song that intends to teach you the song in under 8 minutes. Two bonus music videos are also here for your listening pleasure; one version of Kiss's "Strutter" done by The Donnas and Everclear's version of Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back In Town." There are extensive DVD-ROM extras as well, such as script to screen viewing, or watching both at once, more cast and crew info with trivia, and the website, which I've given the link to. It took me two determined days to get through the extra content.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is a complaint I've never made, but I'll make it now. My biggest gripe about this disc, and the reason you're getting this review 3 months after the disc's release is that New Line never sent it to us. They sent us the Poison Ivy stuff during that same time frame so I know we were on their list, but they didn't send this. Oftentimes we simply don't have the time to review discs we buy for our own collections in the face of all the review discs the studios send us, who have a right to get a review from us in return. This doesn't happen often, but has occurred again, this time from Fox who forgot to send us a copy of The Abyss. I don't want to whine here, but if I can review the Poison Ivy films then we should be getting the good stuff too. New Line, you know we like your stuff, so send us everything please.
The film is far from perfect. It doesn't try to be profound or important, so you shouldn't expect it to be. But I will say that some scenes, notably Furlong's strip scene (you'll see what I mean) could have been done better. I think time got in the way of making the film just that much better.
Believe it or not, I have some complaints with the disc. First thing is the audio menus, they load too slowly and it takes some real heavy listening and memorization to know how to access what. The text menus are by far preferred, which luckily you can get to at the touch of your Title button. An interesting experiment that simply didn't work. Next up are the features. The irreverent tone of the film is increased tenfold in the first feature "Look Into the Sun." It was largely useless film school stuff of goofing off with a handheld camera. The only good part of it was when the camera moves close to Edward Furlong, who said "Remember me? I'm the kid from Terminator." The second feature is more of a behind the scenes look with interviews and such, but is titled "Miscellaneous Sh*t." The title was just gratuitous and the feature only adequate.
Lastly, the commentaries. People wonder why some discs get widely varying scores for similar features. Part of this has to do with the individual judge and how important they think certain features are, but a bigger part has to do with the widely varying qualities among extras such as features and commentaries. A good commentary track is the gold standard of extra features in my book. A bad one can make watching the whole film through again torture. Two of the three commentaries on this disc aren't terrible, they just aren't that great. The director's commentary is basically a rambling by Adam Rifkin. He even asks to leave the room and check on the people laughing it up during the other commentary, then comes back saying how horrible it all sounds. Horrible no, but I've heard a lot better. There is a lot of good information spaced throughout the rambling, but some preparation and thinking before doing the commentary would be much better. Another gripe with the first commentary is that the musical score would get loud between comments and quiet down again, sometimes in the space of two seconds. That was disconcerting. The second commentary has about 10 people involved. Most of the time you get one person at a time, but too often you get a bunch of people talking at once and can't understand anyone. The atmosphere for this commentary was more of a party with sometimes more yukking it up than giving information. Commentaries need to be entertaining, and the people glad to be there, but this was a bit too much. Speaking of happy to be there, James DeBello did not seem happy to be there, or about the film. He would cut off other people, curse unnecessarily (there is plenty of cursing in the film which I didn't mind, but this was gratuitous) and curse some choice of the film or why he wasn't getting more attention. If this was just a joke on his part then I apologize, but it came off rude and boorish. My last complaint on this one was that a couple people were phoning this in, one from the street while eating dinner. Still overall there was a lot of good stuff in the commentary, with DeBello only stepping over the line occasionally. Hopefully all this will explain why the extras rating doesn't get a higher score for such a huge selection.
If you are a Kiss fan, or weren't already old in the '70s, then you should check this disc out. The positives far outweigh the negatives. Disco freaks and religious fundamentalists will likely find something to be offended at. This is one great disc; with a good film and stellar picture and sound. I just ask that people give a little more effort to commentary tracks; after all you're asking someone to watch the whole film again to hear your words. Criterion does a pretty good job with multiple person commentaries; at least the people aren't all talking at once. The film, transfer, soundtrack, and commentary by Kiss mandates a purchase by rock and roll fans despite any other problems.
The cast and crew of the film, and the band Kiss, are acquitted. The people involved in the commentaries though are sentenced to listen to them again and think of how they might be improved, except for Kiss, who did a fine job. New Line of course is released on their own recognizance, since we know they'll continue to do fine work. I look forward to them sending each and every release of theirs in the future, or they shall receive my empty threats and anger again.
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