The Magic, Mystique, and Merchandising of KISS on Film

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One thing is for certain in regards to the rock band KISS: they’re far better businessmen than they are musicians. That’s not to say they’re particularly bad musicians or they don’t have at least a few great pop tunes (I’m personally partial to “Love Gun”); it’s more of a testament to how great they are at selling themselves as a product. The range of KISS merchandise is staggering. In addition to standard rock n’ roll commodities like t-shirts & guitar picks, the band sells everything from beach towels & throw pillows to baseballs, oven mitts, garden gnomes, pinball machines and air fresheners featuring their likeness. This dedication to branding not only made relatively harmless songs about partying seem downright demonic to unsuspecting parents in the 70s, it’s also given the band a strange longevity in the pop culture landscape. No matter how ugly KISS are (both morally & physically) without their makeup or how boring they are without the glam rock showmanship covering up their underlying mundanity, their flare for merchandising makes them an ever-present powerhouse. Their two forays into feature films, 1999’s Detroit Rock City & 1978’s KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, are merely an extension of that keen, pragmatic business sense. KISS on film is not all that much different than KISS on lunchboxes or KISS on lava lamps, all things considered.

The 1999 film Detroit Rock City was my first major exposure to both KISS as a band and KISS as a product. As a young teen misanthrope with an unfortunate affinity for nu metal (it was a different time, folks) I was firmly in the film’s target demographic. Conceived & filmed around the same time as That 70s Show, Detroit Rock City works with a very similar visual language: glorifying the era’s outsider teen ennui while also nostalgically celebrating its more commercial curiosities like vintage K-Mart fashion & disco. I identified with the film pretty deeply at the time. In what basically amounts to a standard stoner comedy/road trip movie, four members of a KISS cover band embark on individual journeys to score tickets to their favorite group’s show in the KISS mecca of Detroit. The characters aren’t nearly as likeable as I remembered (their fondness for the word “fag” is definitely a turn-off), but it’s easy to see what drew teen me to the film. Along their journey to The Concert of Their Lives, the four bumbling fools satisfy typical rebellious teen urges like getting laid, smoking weed, and telling their parents to fuck off. The stoner gags are fairly effective as far as those things go and there are several good turns from a few actors of note. A young Edward Furlong sells menacing teen angst uncomfortably well. Natasha Lyonne is beyond fabulous as a party-hungry disco queen. Character actress Lin Shaye steals the show as an obnoxiously uptight & overeager Christian mother. There’s a lot to love about Detroit Rock City even when the four main characters aren’t themselves loveable.

One thing Detroit Rock City does very well is sell the legend of KISS. Lin Shaye’s overprotective mother leads a conservative protest group called Mothers Against the Music of KISS. She’s the type that proclaims rock n’ roll to be “The Devil’s Music” and has no doubt that KISS is Satan’s favorite group among the worst of the worst. She genuinely, foolishly believes the band’s name to be a sly acronym for “Knights in Satan’s Service”. This attitude, of course, makes the band all the more attractive to her teenage son, who worships KISS in his every waking moment. In addition to the KISS cover band he drums for, the protagonist Jam is the exact kind of kid who collects KISS belt buckles, posters, drumsticks, and so on (behind his mother’s back, of course). The film really does make the band feel like a supernatural phenomenon, like the greatest thing that has ever happened to popular music or maybe even to modern society as a whole. KISS is not just a band to the four main characters; it’s an identity. It’s a personal rebellion that gives them a sense of purpose & sets them apart from straight-laced normals who can’t get it through their thick skulls that “disco sucks!” Like all false idols, no band could ever live up to that level of importance & mystique, so the movie smartly limits the amount of screen time KISS gets in a film designed to constantly remind you about how awesome they are. Detroit Rock City’s killer 70s soundtrack is era-defining, including cuts from The Runaways, T. Rex, Thin Lizzy, Edgar Winter, Black Sabbath, David Bowie and The Ramones. KISS does make up nearly half of the soundtrack, but they’re never allowed to overpower it. As much praise as the band receives during the film’s 90min runtime, they only physically appear at the climactic concert in Detroit, which is the exact opposite of other band-worship films like, say, ABBA: The Movie. It’s an effective tactic, as it affords the band a mysterious, magical charisma.

In 1978’s made-for-TV feature KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, the band’s charisma is literally magical. During the opening credits KISS soars through the air, playing loud rock music over footage of amusement park rides. They then fade to the background during a fairly dull stretch of rising action involving a mad scientist who narrow-mindedly sets his sights on dominating an amusement park instead of the world at large. When the band returns it’s in glorious fashion: they descend from space, shooting laser beams from their eyes and breathing fire while lightning dances around them. Apparently KISS can read minds, burst through walls, roar like lions, and master martial arts maneuvers that would make Batman envious. In KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, the band members aren’t merely Peter, Paul, Gene and Ace. They’re Cat Man, Star Child, Space Ace and The Demon. Although the mad scientist plot starts slowly, it pays off by affording the magical foursome the opportunity to fight opponents like android werewolves and Frankenstein’s monster. It also allows for strange details like a not-so-subtle Star Wars nod in some androids’ light-up swords and strange magical talismans that provides the band their special powers.

After seeing how extensively KISS was worshiped by their fans (or “The KISS Army”, if you will) in Detroit Rock City it’s satisfying to see them act as literal deities in Phantom of the Park. The only problem is that it’s hard to imagine that The KISS Army would have enjoyed the film at all, because it not only tries to appease them, but also tries to win over their parents. Scenes showing the band’s gentler side in heart-felt ballads, gags about an animatronic barber shop quartet, and an onslaught of corny one-liners all do a huge disservice to the band’s mystique. Only “The Demon” Gene comes out unscathed & still menacing while the rest of his bandmates are portrayed as truly good dudes under all that scary makeup. Personally, as a fan of cheese & schlock, I enjoyed how awful & miscalculated the humor was in Phantom of the Park. It’s just hard to imagine the bong water-soaked, KISS worshiping teens of Detroit Rock City feeling the same way, considering that the band’s demonic powers are used for good instead of party-minded chaos in the film. I imagine the band’s younger fans were over the moon for Phantom of the Park; I just can’t say the same about stoner teens.

Even for those who aren’t fans of KISS’s music, both Detroit Rock City and KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park are surprisingly watchable. It’s fascinating to an outsider how an okay-at-best party band branded themselves through mysterious lore and on-stage theatrics as fire-breathing, laser-shooting gods of rock n’ roll. As a stoner comedy, Detroit Rock City is an amusing glimpse into the late 90s’ nostalgic fascination with 70s cool. As a family-friendly, made-for-TV creature feature about robot werewolves and a band from outer space, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park is entertaining enough as how-was-this-even-made shlock. Together they help paint a picture of a rock group that was incredibly adept at brand-awareness, self-lore, and merchandising. KISS may not be the greatest musical act on record or on film, but they might very well be the best act on golf club covers, lip balms, snow globes and Christmas ornaments. That’s certainly a feat within itself.

-Brandon Ledet

5 thoughts on “The Magic, Mystique, and Merchandising of KISS on Film

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