March 09, 2012

It's one of the great stories in the history of either rock bands or small cities. And now a movie inspired by the legendary two days in 1975 that Kiss spent bonding with the citizens of Cadillac could be made in Michigan.

"Cadillac High," a feature film project, has received conditional approval for the state's film incentives. It expects to spend about $27 million in Michigan and would receive slightly more than $8 million in incentives, according to the Michigan Film Office's 2011 annual report.

The movie would be based on the real story of the mutual love affair that turned Cadillac into a temporary Kiss army when the flamboyant, face-painted rockers joined the high school homecoming festivities in the sturdy Midwestern town more than three decades ago.

The project is moving forward, according to producer Lindsay Fellows, who is meeting with directors. Although the film doesn't have a start date, it ideally would begin shooting in September.

Kiss itself is not involved in the project, but the band is on board with the concept.

"Anything that can commemorate and encapsulate what happened in Cadillac, Michigan, is worth doing. It will be a cinematic monument," said Kiss vocalist and guitarist Paul Stanley with typical Kiss flair.

The movie could be a morale boost for the state's film industry, which has been hit hard by the reduction in the state's film incentives. It would hire an estimated 205 Michigan workers, and potential filming locations include Cadillac, Pontiac and Detroit, according to the film office's report.

Fellows, who's originally from Dearborn, said his first concert was in ninth grade when he saw Kiss in Detroit. "I thought the world was ending," he said of his excitement then.

He's equally enthusiastic about his goal of turning the Kiss-in-Cadillac story into something that appeals on many fronts.

"It's not a movie about Kiss. It's not a movie about football. It's a great piece of Americana that happens to include both of these great things," said Fellows, a music supervisor for two "Chronicles of Narnia" films.

The other producers are Philip Steuer, an executive producer of "Oz the Great and Powerful," the Disney epic filmed last year at Pontiac's Raleigh Michigan Studios, and Mark Johnson, whose many credits include "The Notebook" and the TV series "Breaking Bad."

"Cadillac High" still needs to provide additional financial information to the Michigan Film Office. It's listed in the film office's latest annual report under projects approved in 2011 that will be produced in the state in 2012, which means its incentive won't be part of the new $25-million annual cap that's now in effect.

Michigan Film Office Director Carrie Jones said the movie would fit the goal of showcasing the state and its many locations. "This project tells a great Michigan story and would make a really strong fit for what we are trying to accomplish with our incentive program," Jones messaged on Thursday.
It happened in Cadillac

But "Cadillac High" would mean the most to Cadillac, a northern Michigan town of about 10,000 that would love to see its brush with the band famous for "Rock and Roll All Nite" and a slew of other hits turned into a movie.

"I think it's terrific that there are producers willing to revisit the time period when a very popular rock band came to a small Midwestern town. It's definitely going to stir up a lot of memories," said Cadillac City Manager Marcus Peccia.

To ensure that the project would do justice to the epic Kiss visit, Fellows has been working for a couple of years with the man who made it all happen -- Jim Neff, a former Cadillac High teacher and assistant football coach.

Back in 1974, when the powerhouse Cadillac Vikings started the season with two losses, Neff had the idea of playing Kiss music in the locker room as a motivational tool. After all, the music was fast and loud, and, in football, as he explains, Kiss stands for "Keep it simple, stupid," a slogan about sticking to an effective game plan.

Once the Kiss songs started flowing, the Vikings won the last seven games of the season.

In the midst of those victories, Neff got in touch with Kiss and eventually heard directly from its members. "My chair is located in the same place where Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons called me," said Neff, who still lives in Cadillac, a short walk from the football field.

That started a connection between the band and the school that, in 1975, led to the famous visit. Kiss, scheduled to play around that time at a Michigan college, accepted Neff's invitation to come to Cadillac High for homecoming.

What happened next exceeded his and everyone's expectations. During two days in October -- just a month after Kiss' landmark "Alive!" album was released -- band members Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, in full Kiss regalia, visited the high school, posed for photos on the football field and performed a show at the Cadillac High School gym attended by about 2,000 people. "To be part of that was surreal, to say the least," remembered Stanley, who said Michigan has long had a place in the band's heart. "Let's face it, we're blue-collar. We didn't grow up with a silver spoon. We were embraced and taken in by Detroit and Michigan. But Cadillac was unique."

Stanley says it was mind-boggling to see the enthusiasm of the town where the football team went "from worst to first" with help from its songs. Kiss even attended a civic breakfast in Cadillac where Neff, coach Dave Brines, Mayor Raymond Wagner and other dignitaries wore Kiss makeup and gave Kiss a key to the city.

"To see the mayor and everybody doing it, and doing it willingly, it was a testament to a small miracle," Stanley said. Later that day, Kiss made a dramatic exit when a helicopter landed on the football field. As it flew away, thousands of flyers fluttered onto the field that read, "Cadillac -- Kiss loves you!"

In the decades since, not a week has gone by that someone hasn't contacted Neff about the visit. "Your 15 minutes of fame, if it can last 36 years, that's cool," said Neff, who retired from teaching after 31 years. Most Kiss-related projects suggested to him never took off, but a 2010 ESPN segment helped spread awareness of the visit outside the Kiss army.

Neff said he wrote an extensive account of the visit for Fellows and screenwriter Jonathan Prince, a veteran of TV series like "American Dreams." He hasn't seen the script yet, but he said he's in good hands.

"I put my faith in the hands of the professionals. They know what they're doing," Neff said. He joked that he would like to be played by Brad Pitt, while his wife thinks Bob Newhart would be a closer match.

If "Cadillac High" gets made, it would be the second movie with a strong Kiss in Michigan theme. "Detroit Rock City," a 1999 comedy, is about four teens trying to see their music idols in 1978 in concert in Detroit.

But Kiss always will be inexorably linked to Cadillac in general and Cadillac High in particular. Last year, a plaque commemorating the visit was donated to Cadillac High School by the Class of 1976, the Kiss class, said Cadillac Area Public Schools Superintendent Paul Liabenow.

Stanley, who's producing the upcoming Kiss album "Monster," will never forget that trip: "It was a magical time and a magical moment."