The clarity that time brings is often cringe-worthy, and never more so than in the case of this gem of a first time on DVD KISS documentary/video chronicle, KISS Exposed.
The video was originally released in 1987, and years before Gene Simmons became Gene Simmons, Inc. and as his rock band was going through some particularly hard to watch growing pains. The music scene at the time was burgeoning with brazen young guns regularly releasing “raise your fist and party” singles, wearing a ton of makeup, and spraying their hair as high as it would go. KISS, on the other hand, had made the almost-career-killing move of removing their own makeup four years earlier, and were getting a bit long in the tooth to be playing the rebellious band from the streets role.
And yet, they pushed on: with only half of their original line-up intact, they Aqua-Netted their tresses, donned the shiniest, most fluorescent spandex outfits they could find, and proceeded to put out the absolutely worst music of their career, cutting through the innuendos straight to the sexist clichés.
The band’s work during the mid to late ’80s was a far cry from their heyday, some ten years prior. Instead of classics like “Deuce” and “Shock Me,” they were producing “Lick It Up” and “Uh! All Night.” A sample of the latter’s lyrics: “When your body’s been starved / Feed your appetite / When you work all day / You gotta Uh! All Night / Uh! — Uh! — Uh! — Uh! — Uh! — Whooo!” The fact that the accompanying video has Paul Stanley prancing around in a ship captain’s hat doesn’t help matters.
Between the string of bad songs, and even worse videos on KISS Exposed, are vignettes, where “interviewer” Mark Blankfield clumsily follows the band members around. Wearing a terrible suit and coke bottle glasses, Blankfield, opens the DVD by showing up at Stanley’s house and ringing the doorbell, which ding-dongs “Rock and Roll All Nite.” The bleary eyed singer opens the door wearing orange parachute pants and a matching silk scarf around his neck, looking dazed and clueless as he asks the film crew if they are from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
Their I’ve-been-out-all-night-and-I’m-hung-over routine is a stark contrast to the common knowledge regarding “KISStory,” that original members Peter Criss and Ace Frehley were dismissed or left the band due to substance abuse problems that created internal tensions with the clean and sober swollen egos of Stanley and Simmons. The last two were left in control of the group, and they were intent on keeping it a well-oiled machine, mainly because the drinking and drugging had been exorcised with Criss and Frehley. So, for them to take on the personae of hard partiers during KISS Exposed is laughable, bordering on pathetic, when the unbelievability factor is so blatant.
While “recovering” from the previous night’s activities, Stanley prefaces his breakfast of melons, fruit, trail mix, and “secret ingredient” root beer by saying, “Sometimes people don’t understand that with a lifestyle like mine: partying, gettin’ crazy…” You can imagine the cue cards he must be reading.
The living on the edge angle plays itself out quickly, at which point there are the girls. What would rock and roll be without boobs galore? Apparently not much, according to the sheer number of them in KISS Exposed. All over the house, scantily clad and topless women are passed out, feather-dusted by the butler, wandering in front of the camera’s path, serving drinks by the pool, waiting in line to tell Simmons what is on their Christmas lists, or serving as x-rated mise en scene. These scenes can be avoided by going into the special features section of the DVD and clicking on the skull which, when highlighted green, plays only the videos.
While a good portion of KISS Exposed, both the videos and interviews, is unbearably tongue in cheek — save for the requisite but painfully slow-motion shot of Gene Simmons’ infamous tongue doing tricks, there are some worthwhile aspects of the video, namely, the grainy pro-shot and black and white live snippets of the original line-up from 1975 to 1977. Their live shows were more than makeup and cheesy songs; they had an intensity and stage presence that some groups spend entire careers trying to attain. KISS live in their prime were untouchable.
Even though that prime had passed, redeeming qualities still existed. When Simmons isn’t doing his “I’m dying to be a film star” mugging for the camera during the interview portions, looking like a bloated Bea Arthur, he and Stanley give some wistful insight into their beginnings and early ’80s rapid member turnover. There is a priceless moment when they do an a cappella verse of The Beatles’ “I’ll Be Back” while recalling their early days on street corners, vying for quarters to be tossed into their open guitar cases.
That’s when KISS is truly “exposed.” Even when sugarcoating the pain of their dissolving friendships, the band members reveal in more actions than words that they have dealt with the ups and downs of rock and roll, and the DVD is evidence that they were in the midst of a major “down.”
Perhaps most commendable is the fact that when thrust into a musical climate where they no longer fit, KISS was intent on sticking it out. It certainly paid off in the long run for the band, with the recent success of a reunion tour with Criss and Frehley and return to the make-up raking in millions, and Simmons defining capitalism by hawking everything from Kiss Condoms to Kiss Caskets. They have proven that, in a multitude of different ways, Kiss has managed to stay in the spotlight while dozens of other rock groups have long since faded away.
But back in 1987, what was underneath the face paint was revealed: two musicians who were trying desperately to remain relevant and keep their rock and roll dreams alive.