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It’s one thing to make The Dark Backward, a disgusting, incoherent, vile slopbucket of a film that stood as Adam Rifkin’s art venture in 1991. In every creative being, one can charitably suppose, there’s a freak project yearning to be belched out; once the five-legged albino toad hits the pavement, the artist’s mind is free to return to its day job.
But it is another thing entirely to be so inherently loathsome and incapable that one’s preening art aspirations are indistinguishable from that day job and cripple one’s ability to direct the simplest movie in the most obvious and pleasing fashion. At the very worst, Detroit Rock City—the comedic story of four Ohio teens chasing down elusive Kiss tickets in 1978—should have been genially mediocre, an easygoing, good-natured shaggy-dog romp with nothing more to offer than time-warp chuckles and an affection for teenagers in theatrical, albeit temporary, crisis. But Rifkin has no affection for anything, although his vituperative hatred for women and Catholicism and girls and sex and females comes through loud and clear. Huge structural fissures threaten this uncomplex edifice from the start; every rule of teen-rock ‘n’ roll comedy is tossed aside in favor of a chaotic, toneless, careless series of usually unpleasant happenings. It seems nobody ever taught Rifkin the basic principles of C-moviemaking. Take a memo; we’re starting over:
1. Either we concentrate primarily on one kid’s story—say, that of Jeremiah-called-Jam (Sam Huntington), the decent blond drummer with a face like a very small serving of blancmange, whose insane Catholic mother (Lin Shaye, who must be tired of being penalized for being a thin, middle-aged woman) has a particular bug up her butt about the band she thinks calls itself “Knights in Satan’s Service”—or we give all four equal screen time and backstory. Instead, the screenplay divides its time between the most fully developed character (Jam) and the film’s star (Edward Furlong as Hawk). That leaves James De Bello, as Trip, to set himself off by his long hair, ski cap, and mannerisms received with zero modifications from the school of Jeff Spicoli and Jay (from Kevin Smith’s films). The other guy (Giuseppe Andrews), who looks kind of like all the others, plays the other guy. When Jam’s mother lights her cigarette with their four flaming Kiss tickets, the kids should take off on their quest to reach the concert in ways that express their personalities. Had they any.
2. The tickets should be talismanic; that is, the kids should be chasing the same set of tickets throughout the film. You know the drill: Jam’s mom starts to burn the tickets, a janitor picks up the trash can, tries to blackmail the kids for them, they get snatched by a dog, dog runs into suburban backyard where a sexy teen girl is sunbathing, guy tells girl he’ll take her to concert, other guys freak out, tickets drop down a drain, the kids meet homeless guys…jeez, figure it out. The tickets should be golden shining fetishes of freedom, rebellion, adulthood, teen ecstasy—something.
3. Speaking of freedom, rebellion, et cetera, a film about four basically decent but unambitious kids repeatedly thwarted on their way to a rock concert should make a case for the value of their independence. What is it about youth, rock ‘n’ roll, and Kiss that threatens the Man? Nothing! According to the script, parents, teachers, priests, and grownups of all stripes are totally unreasonable anyway, given no provocation. Flip side of that faceless penny: Music and hormones weren’t powerful substances to begin with.
4. Pally, resist the urge to recycle those creepy retro-ironic sets that weren’t as David Lynchariffic as you thought they were the first time around, especially if your setting is ’70s Detroit, for crying out loud. (Not that an inch of footage is shot in Detroit; that would be too obvious.) And watch the anachronisms—”mom-bashing,” “psycho bitch from hell,” “Hello-o?” Does it matter that this is supposed to be 20 years ago?
5. When cliches are lined up like plump ducks, be prepared to either send them up or service them in the accepted manner. But this film flubs even the gimmes, its paucity of imagination employing moribund gags—like the pompous priest (David Gardner) unwittingly ingesting hallucinogens—for the sole purpose of killing them dead. (The payoff is—get this!—the priest laughs loudly.)
6. Don’t build your cathedral on wet sand. If the entire plot is predicated on the contingency that Jam’s mom finds the tickets in a denim jacket that needs a wash, why doesn’t Jam tell her that he picked up Trip’s jacket by mistake, which happens to be the truth?
7. When in doubt, campy zoom-pans will not save you. A slammin’ soundtrack, however, comes in handy. For Cheap Trick, Sweet, Santana, Bowie, T-Rex, Hot Chocolate, and the rest, I thank you, and I hope my favorite glam-rock-disco Me Decade hits have not been tainted forever.
Detroit Rock City’s overall disastrousness isn’t the fault of the game, appealing boys who star, or even the vanity behind the project: the well-preserved members of Kiss, who are seen in contemporary performance at the film’s end—and a wan, unexciting denouement that makes. Rifkin seems incapable of making the simplest film by the straight-line-between-two-points method; he actually makes movies much worse than they need to be. The best that can be said about it is that it makes 1978’s made-for-TV campy pop footnote KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park look like Citizen Kane. CP