Cleveland, Ohio, 1978 and this Godfearing woman (Lin Shaye) settles down with a glass of tipple and her favourite Carpenters album on her record player. Except she's in for a nasty surprise as it's not the easy listening duo she hears, but the hard rocking sounds of KISS - her son has hidden his LP in a different sleeve to keep it from her. Now she is on the warpath straight over to the basement where teenage Jam (Sam Huntington) is rehearsing with his band, and tells him off in front of his four bandmates, then drives him home. How is he supposed to get to tomorrow night's KISS concert in Detroit at this rate?
Detroit Rock City was an attempt to do for KISS what Rock 'n' Roll High School did for The Ramones, except this effort arrived about twenty years too late. Nevertheless, director Adam Rifkin was no stranger to the wilds of cultdom, and so it was that his tribute movie, created under the instruction of the band itself, did gather a small but loyal following on its release. This may not have been so much to do with the devotees of Gene Simmons and his gang, and more to do with this having a neat mix of nostalgia, rites of passage stylings, and a dollop of gross out and bawdy humour. Not everyone would respond, but those that did embraced its curiously sweet-natured laddishness.
There were still plenty of instances of nastiness, many of them meted out to the main quartet of teens, but oddly enough any bitterness was canceled out by a sizeable dose of sympathy borne from looking back at what from the position of 1999 was a more innocent age. As with most such stances, reflecting on the decades past was informed by a feeling that no matter how bad things seemed to you then, they were not as bad as they are now, and conversely while things appear better in other ways they could equally have been worse in the old days. Therefore Detroit Rock City was speaking to different generations of movie fans, not to mention music fans, and doing so very well.
There have to be complications, and they arise when Jam's mother finds the concert tickets accidentally left with him, takes him humiliatingly out of class, and proceeds to burn the precious objects of desire in front of her son and the horrified, secretly onlooking other three friends. After a spell spent in the doldrums, they overhear a competition on the radio and Trip (James DeBello) phones up to successfully win four new tickets - they're so pleased they rush out and liberate Jam from the boarding school he's been sent to, and head off down the highway to Detroit and what they hope will be the best night of their lives. Which in a way it will be, except they really have to earn that privilege first.
So many obstacles are placed in their path that much of the comedy doesn't so much stem from the dialogue or character interplay as discovering what manner screenwriter Carl V. Dupré has found to mess up their lives now. To that end, he singles each of our heroes out for an adventure, so that Hawk (Edward Furlong) ends up stripping for cash at a bar full of rowdy women but meets Shannon Tweed instead (the unofficial Mrs Simmons, lest we forget), and Lex (Giuseppe Andrews) trying to track down their stolen transport, and meeting up with the disco bunny (Natasha Lyonne) they gave a lift to while disdaining her musical taste (insert "KISS would never do a disco song" gag here).
The four friends are meant to represent the four stars of the band they love, so naturally they all get to meet some special ladies to make them into men, with Jam getting to fight back against the prudery of his mother and her fellow moralists by getting seduced by schoolfriend Melanie Lynskey, who has admired him from afar all year, in a confession booth. It's all aimed at the inspirational and heartwarming, and much of it succeeds, wanting nothing more than to celebrate, with the great selection of vintage tunes on the soundtrack a large contribution to that, a surprisingly wide variety of them too, proving that the filmmakers really knew their stuff when it came to this era (shame about the unnecessary covers over the end credits, but hey, it was the nineties). With enough big laughs and a game cast, Detroit Rock City was fashioned with care, and even if KISS left you cold - they appear in full costume for the finale - there was plenty else to win you over.