MARK STRONG (narrator): The Wabash River covers 490 square miles, carving a vein from Fort Recovery, Ohio, to Shawneetown, Illinois. Nestled between those points is Terre Haute — or “Higher Ground” — Indiana, so christened by 18th century French explorers for the way the land crested above yet simultaneously embraced the tributary. Their geological synchronicity was once both legendary and picturesque; authors and composers have quaffed of its inspiration. Gripped by the memory of a childhood along its flow, 40-year-old songwriter Paul Dresser, in October of 1897, published a paean, “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” from the more bustling climes of New York’s Tin Pan Alley.
JOSH GROBAN (singing): “Oh, the moonlight’s fair tonight along the Wabash / From the fields there comes the breadth of new-mown hay / Through the sycamores the candle lights are gleaming / On the banks of the Wabash, far away…”
MARK STRONG (narrator): In January of 1975, music and culture would clash anew, just as water once caressed soil then joined the rush toward history. It was here in Terre Haute, long after Paul Dresser’s beloved sycamores were razed for empires of industry and suburbia, where young William Starkey and Jay Evans launched a tiny voice that would one day speak for many.
BILL MOYERS (journalist): It’s difficult to comprehend now, but in 1975, nobody who mattered knew KISS. Radio stations didn’t play them — wouldn’t play them, in fact — and only a small but dedicated fan base bought their albums. They’d had only two up to that point, anyway: KISS and Hotter Than Hell, which had come out the previous October and made barely an ripple on what Billboard calls the “Hot 100.” One can imagine the frustration these boys felt that their heroes were being ignored.
SHIA LaBEOUF (VO): “Gentlemen: It has come to our attention that your station, WVTS-FM, has yet to feature KISS in its rotation. We ask that you address this oversight at your earliest convenience.” — William Starkey, Jay Evans, 1975
FRANK LANGELLA (VO): “Kind sirs: Thank you for your recent letter. I hope that my reply finds you both in good health. However, we have no plans to add KISS at this time, for it is felt among our staff that these ‘musicians,’ such as they are, fail to meet our exacting standards as regards rock and roll.” — Rich Dickerson, program director, WVTS-FM
SHIA LaBEOUF (VO): “Gentlemen: We are disheartened by your refusal to honor our request, for we do not ask much. Admittedly, we are young, still clutched in idealism’s thrall, and perhaps men of your experience find our passions trivial and banal. However, we assure you that our dedication to this cause wavers not, and our ranks number far more than ourselves. We are, in fact, an army — a KISS Army, if you like — and through sheer stubborn strength and will, we shall prevail.” — William Starkey, Jay Evans
JACK BLACK (VO): “The first shot is fired. The first blood is drawn. A brainchild is sired: a new dawn is born. This summer is bound to be hotter than hell.” — Henry Oliphant, Poet Laureate, KISS Army, 1975
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN (historian; reading from her diary): “On denim-bound binder, in fine ball-point, Doris etches the names of giants. Her devotion is such that she even knows their birth names. Chaim Witz. Stanley Eisen. Paul Daniel Frehley. George Peter John Criscuola. Their phantoms invade her chamber at night, a hot swarm of tongues, glitter, and tangles of hair. She imagines her Jiminy Cricket flashlight is the blinding supernova of a Polaroid Instamatic. ‘Take me, Space Ace,’ she gasps. ‘Enter my feminine galaxy. Baby wants it fast, baby wants a blast. She wants a rocket ride. She wants a rocket ride.’ ” Oh, my land and the infant Jesus, stop the camera…OHHHH…
MARK STRONG (narrator): The tale of KISS is widely known, from Kabuki rise to Kabuki fall to Kabuki rebirth and triumph. To relay it even in passing is unnecessary. What of those legions in the dark, their numbers vast, their faith steadfast? This is the story of the not-so-silent millions, who would follow four men across four decades over all four corners of the earth.
(FADE IN, OPENING CREDITS)
KISS (1976 recording): “You’ve got something aboutcha / You got something I need / Daughter of Aphrodite / Hear my words and take heed / I was born on Olympus / To my father a son / I was raised by the demons / Trained to reign as the one / God of thunder / and rock ’n’ roll / The spell you’re under / will slowly rob you of your virgin soul…”
STEPHEN AMBROSE (historian): You’ve got to understand: 1975 was a very fraught period in American history. Vietnam was just ending. Patty Hearst was on the loose. At least two people tried to kill Gerald Ford, and they couldn’t do it. Gas and oil were sky high. Looming over all of this is the specter of the ’60s. Woodstock. Altamont. Cynicism. Then Nixon. Watergate. Darkness. The hippie dream had failed, and its carcass was beginning to smell. America was months from her Bicentennial, the celebration of a garish, tarnished lie. It was time to medicate. It was time for KISS.
KISS (1976 recording): “I feel uptight on a Saturday night / Nine o’clock, the radio’s the only light / I hear my song and it pulls me through / Comes on strong, tells me what I got to do / I got to / Get up / Everybody’s gonna move their feet / Get down / Everybody’s gonna leave their seat / You gotta lose your mind in Detroit Rock City…”
JACK WHITE (narrator): It was in the city of Cadillac, Michigan, that KISS’ propensity for publicity reached full flourish. For one week in October of 1975, this quiet community of 10,000, located 179 miles from the cacophonous nerve center of Detroit, became the universe’s envied pulse, besieged by press, overwhelmed by madness, drowned in rock ’n’ roll.
JON HAMM (VO): “Dear Sir: As you know, we here at Cadillac High School have been big fans of KISS for a long time. Last year our football team’s defensive unit was nicknamed the ‘KISS Defense,’ and we went on to finish with a seven and two record. Since that time KISS has been the rock group in Cadillac. … I can assure you that we will do everything in our power to make a KISS visit a worthwhile experience for you. … Hopefully, we can work together and make these plans a reality. Our Homecoming will be ‘super’ just because of the KISS theme. KISS in person would make it an extravaganza.” — Jim Neff, teacher-coach, Cadillac High School, 1975
PERRY SUSKIND (Cadillac High School historian): The Vikings carried the KISS defense into the 1975-76 season and ended with a 6-3 record. The highlight that year, of course, was when KISS came to visit. They completely took over the whole city from Oct. 8-10, 1975, beginning with an Oct. 7 telephone interview for WATT-AM and ending that Friday with a helicopter departure from the football field. It was nothing short of spectacular: kids in KISS makeup, city officials in KISS makeup — I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t a cat or two dressed to look like Peter Criss. The fellows received a silver key to the city and showered it in fliers: “Cadillac High — KISS Loves You!” Historic, just historic.
ED HARRIS (VO): “For years we have been trying to unite the student body and the faculty … KISS accomplished this in one night.” — John Laurent, principal, Cadillac High School, 1975
JACK WHITE (narrator): The growing KISS Army was on the march.
KISS (1977 recording): “I remember the day that we met / I needed someone, you needed someone too, yeah / Spent time takin’ all you could get / Givin’ yourself was one thing you never could do / You played with my heart, played with my head / I’ve got to laugh when I think of the things you said / ’Cause I stole your love / stole your love / Ain’t never gonna let you go…”
CASEY AFFLECK (VO): “Dearest Helena: My will to live is gone, my darling. The winter has been most brutal upon my body and conscience. I cannot bear its savagery much longer. The others are freezing, huddled against its cruelty. Morale has evaporated, along with what remains of our hopes. The size of our desires, I fear, shall not bear fruit when the time has come. I was plagued last night by visions of the inevitable, that this godforsaken line is for naught: that Cobo Hall has, indeed, sold out.” — Pvt. Steven Guernin, KISS Army, July 7, 1977
NATALIE PORTMAN (VO): “Dearest: I discovered your letter this morning. Although your woe pains me to my soul, I am confident that you will return to me, tickets in hand to a kick-ass show. And even if it’s not meant to be, we can take comfort, you and I, in life’s little pleasures: your Mustang, my lucky hat, our records, and a sofa built for two. Bear up, my love. This too shall pass. Remember to buy cigarettes and bubblegum on your way home.” — Nancy LaRose, July 7, 1977
KISS (1976 recording): “Beth, I know you’re lonely / And I hope you’ll be all right / ’Cause me and the boys will be playin’ / all night…”