Most attempts to visually record live music overlook what is not visible, flattening the spaciousness of a concert--the way it takes shape between all five (or six or seven?) senses. Which is why I would trade every concert film ever unspooled for Rock 'n' Roll High School, the tale of a crazed Ramones fan, or I Wanna Hold Your Hand, the tale of crazed Beatles fans. I think concert footage needs an interlocutor, someone on the screen who more substantially embodies the audience's role than a thousand pumping fists or flickering lighters. Through that witness, the secondhand viewer can imagine the sweat and the smoke and the belly butterflies; without them, we have only the band and the music, and that's not even half the story.
Wisely, Detroit Rock City doesn't overemphasize the Seventies-era Kiss concert--re-created with the real Kiss!--that its four high school buddies are desperately trying to attend. Instead, in true I Wanna Hold Your Hand style, Adam Rifkin's movie headlines the twists and turns of getting there. The sardonic Hawk (Edward Furlong), earnest Jam (Sam Huntington), brainy Lex (Giuseppe Andrews), and spacy Trip (James De Bello) wail together in a Kiss cover band, yet they've never seen their idols in the flesh. They must make it over the rainbow despite successive losses of tickets, dignity, idealism, and virginity. Needless to say, the Volvo borrowed from Lex's gynecologistmom (yes, this is the level of humor you can expect) does not survive undented.
In the esteemed tradition of Wayne's World, each of these fellows must be grossly humiliated before he can triumph by grossly humiliating his tormentors. Thanks to Rifkin and the actors, who manage the right balance of lightness and enthusiasm, this embarrassingly overworked vein can be overlooked fairly often (at least after a torturously long setup). A pudgy Furlong stumbles through minefields of dumb stereotypes in a male stripper scene and emerges the blurry-eyed bearer of a classic comedy sequence. Huntington and Lin Shaye (as Jam's fundamentalist Xtian mother) manage a poignant moment or two. De Bello does a really fine job of bonding with a rubber action figure.
Full of cartoonishly nasty adults and endearingly absurd scenarios, Detroit Rock City is a boy's own Rock 'n' Roll High School. Which, unfortunately, puts paid to the 1979 movie's sweetest gambit: It was about girls' desires, and girls' sexual awakenings. The one tricky thing about these male sexploits--the friends all get lucky, believe it or not--is that they come within the context of an even stronger desire to experience Kiss. All the homophobic jokes and heterosexual couplings can't erase what is most evocative and touching about the movie: the love (and it ain't purely platonic) for this band of makeup-wearing, tongue-waggling, high-heeled boys and what they represent, i.e, the film's own band of outsiders. Near the end, our heroes willingly beat each other up to get into the show. Now, how does that line go: "He hit me and it felt like a Kiss"?
Rereleased on the occasion of its 15th birthday (with newly remastered sound), the Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense perhaps goes as far as a 2D concert film can in communicating the energy of a pop music show. Its relative achievement should not necessarily be credited to director Jonathan Demme (whose new concert film of the self-consciously whimsical singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, Storefront Hitchcock, starts Friday at U Film Society; see Film Clips, p. 46). Demme depends on a strategy of alternating long and medium shots with close-ups in a way that was probably clichéd the first time it was used to "capture" rock music. Stop Making Sense really flies on David Byrne's dramatic set and lighting designs, which emphasize the fact that the live Talking Heads were always as focused on arty performance as on finding a groove.
Resembling nothing so much as the Chicken Lady's ideal mate, Byrne puts his darting eyes, jutting beak, and willfully spasmodic gestures to work, inventing characters to go along with the songs' situations. "Life During Wartime" inspires seemingly endless running in place. "This Must Be the Place" gets a nervously sweet treatment under a warm living-room light. Then, of course, there's the awful and pathetic big-suited man (brought out for "Girlfriend Is Better"). The vivid performances do entice the viewer to forget the thinness of this format--for a while. In the end, what may most determine the film's success or failure is the degree to which one identifies with Byrne's larger persona: the nerdy white boy who gets to free his ass (via black funk) without relinquishing--or being able to relinquish?--his control.