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Gene Simmons - Speaking in Tongues

Sanctuary Records // PG // August 10, 2004
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted August 21, 2004 | E-mail the Author
You have to hand it to Gene Simmons. Who else but this timid son of immigrants could turn a career as a kabuki-inspired rock and roll star into a three-decade plus multi-media empire? When KISS first broke out onto the music scene in the early 70s, pop culture was not initially impressed. It took endless touring, a steely determination and a little LP called Alive to transform the formidable men in makeup into a heavy metal dynasty. And once a fan got a whiff of one of those KISS concerts – half theatrics, half thunder – a lifelong bond was created. Simmons has been stellar in manipulating that devotion into a burgeoning business worth millions. He has successful marketed the band's iconic look onto numerous items, both novelty and noteworthy. You can, today, buy KISS dolls, KISS lunchboxes, KISS car accessories, KISS condoms and – yes – even a KISS coffin (which doubles as a beer cooler – naturally). Simmons, almost exclusively, has been the mastermind behind the continued success of a group and an image that hasn't had a true Top 10 hit since Elton John was denying his sexuality. But what most people probably want to know, in addition to all his public declarations of how living the good life is the best revenge, is what exactly makes such a man tick. How did a young boy, relocated from Israel, dirt poor and unable to speak English, turn into one of the most recognizable figures in the history of the music genre? Unfortunately, you won't find many answers buried inside the incredibly entertaining ballyhoo known as Gene Simmons – Speaking in Tongues. But what you will discover is over an hour of philosophical insight into how this bass-playing titan for one of the seminal bands in all of hard rock thinks about life, love and the power of the greenback dollar bill. Turns out, these elements may not be so mutually exclusive.

The DVD:
Part spoken word concert performance (or more specifically, excerpts from same) recorded during Simmons's tour of Australia, interspersed with behind the scenes footage of Gene and family at home, Speaking in Tongues has a couple of consciously competing purposes. First, it is a chance to see Simmons in a totally different light: sans fright face makeup and blood/fire pyrotechnics, speaking in a motivational manner about his personal ethos. The second, and far subtler intent, is as a shill for many of the products and productions this tycoon is spearheading as part of his own massive media conglomerate. Thanks to the ongoing success of KISS (the band recently had one of the most popular 'farewell' tours in industry history) the superstar has a seemingly unlimited bank account which he can use to pursue interests as diverse as magazine publishing (the appropriately named Tongue), animated kid shows (the autobiographical My Dad, the Rock Star) and even feature film production (we see him take a "meeting" with Detroit Rock City director Adam Rifkin on a project called...Sherlock Homey, to star Snoop Dogg). So anytime we don't see Simmons lecturing the crowd or cavorting with his family, he is in his memorabilia and merchandise filled office, brainstorming another way of making money. This Cribs meets corporate cheerleading combination does have its drawbacks, but whenever Simmons is center stage, his enigmatic personality wipes away all manner of misgivings.

When Simmons is performing, speaking to an attentive audience, nothing is more mesmerizing or entertaining. Having mastered the gift of gab long ago (he has always been a genius at self promotion) Simmons has trained himself to be a nonstop flow of extemporaneous ideas, a delightful breath of fresh air in the rather stuffy and insular world of the celebrity confessional. Gene is not here to tell you of his many conquests (though he is honest about the famous women he's canoodled with) or his personal proclivities when it comes to sex. No, the fire-breathing bad boy from the band with the penchant for enormous platform boots is really interested in discussing empowerment. Beginning with some very telling tales about his arrival in America and his destitute upbringing, Simmons insinuates that everything in life, from problems to prosperity, begins with the individual. If a person "allows" life to undermine them, if they give "permission" to be bullied by their circumstances, then they deserve all the despair visited upon them. But if, as Simmons says, one is selfish (not selfless), concentrating solely on finding ways to achieve their aims, then they will defeat the forces of self-doubt and begin the path to enlightenment and enjoyment. Simmons does not dilute the importance of an extreme work ethic or the sharing of fiscal responsibility. What he does champion is the idea that individuals are to love themselves over anyone else, first and foremost, and never tolerate failure. If it wasn't already an age-old maxim, it's not difficult to imagine Simmons coining that old catchphrase about consistent 'trying' leading to accomplishment.

Not everything here is an infomercial for heavy metal self-help. Simmons is also an insightful expert on social norms and interpersonal problems. Avoiding the merest trappings of a normal life and deconstructing marriage to the point where it loses all romantic meaning, Simmons sells some sensational sexual snake oil with his massive lick stick firmly implanted in his cheek. But this is not to say he is wrong. For men, he makes a very valid point about the pro-female divorce laws. And he cajoles the gals for not making marriage their number one employment opportunity. When he discusses his commitment to fatherhood and raising his kids right, as well as the devotion and respect he has for 20 year life partner actress/model Shannon Tweed, you begin to see why he discounts the importance of a legal and/or religious ceremony. Simmons says he is painfully honest and throughout the course of Speaking in Tongues we never once doubt him. This means that everything he says about matrimony – even when it sounds painfully outdated and borderline chauvinistic – comes from the heart. And when he expresses his undying love for Tweed, his children and his fans, you can take that to the bank as well. Simmons did not become a multi-millionaire being stupid. To hear him tell it, it all has to do with hard effort and absolute integrity.

Speaking of laughing all the way to the financial institution, the amount of money and the lifestyle Simmons enjoys as a result of being a rock star is quite amazing; not so much for what he has, as for what he doesn't display. While his four bedroom, 16,000 square foot mansion is a palace in paradise, even by the musician's own standards, it is still a family domicile where everyone has their place and fake formalities are avoided. Simmons's' own office is a testament to the lasting impact of KISS. Filled with more gold, silver and platinum records than most artists can only dream of, as well as a plethora of professional and fan-based merchandise, it is a shrine to his accomplishments – and a reminder of how far the fall to failure can be. It is almost as if he has surrounded himself with an empire in miniatures and symbols, the better to inspire him. Simmons uses the office sanctuary as a place to dream up his next brilliant marketing idea and his level of efficiency (as well as the floor to ceiling rack of "projects") illustrates a man as machine, constantly running to stay ahead of the pack. Sure, there are times when Speaking in Tongues is very self-serving. Simmons never misses an opportunity to showcase a new venture (his magazine, the cartoon) and he will flaunt his success where ever and how ever he can (when Cindy Margolis and a VH-1 camera crew show up at his doorstep, pitchman Simmons steps right up to shill).

It is also during these "intimate" moments where we meet the third, hidden Simmons's persona, one usually kept away from the public. Of course, there is the lizard-tongued demon who drinks blood, breathes fire and slams the bass with devilish ferocity. Then there is the articulate and very mannered businessman, a gentleman with a jest or a piece of profundity always at the ready, using his razor sharp wit and photographic memory to find any possible opening to push the agenda he is currently supporting. But there is another Gene Simmons, a loving father, devoted partner and regular human being that's not always "on" and we do catch a couple of glimpses of him during Speaking in Tongues. There is a moment when 'spouse' Shannon discusses how much she adores her man when we see the serious, controlled demeanor leave Gene's face and witness, instead, a portrait of a man in love. A similar situation occurs when his young daughter throws her arms around him, startling Simmons with the instant, open affection. For a man who has made a career out of being a larger then life monster of rock, sing-shouting his songs to throngs of adoring fans, to watch the power of emotion transform him into a traditional man is amazing. All persuasive oratory and famous friend filled party hearty scenes aside, it's the minor, personal moments that really make Speaking in Tongues something special.

Indeed, when watching this amazing videography of Simmons's life, career and principles, one can't help but wish for one thing...that it was LONGER. At only 68 minutes, this is like getting the greatest hits compilation of more complex, more involved, concept albums. Since Simmons obviously spoke to his audiences for longer than the 30 or so minutes we see of him working the stage here, some more of his patented philosophizing would have been nice. And even though most people coming to this title know more about KISS, the KISS army and the dozens of other KISS-related legends that made the band the myth they are today, a little KISS-tory for the uninitiated would have been nice. Simmons promises the audience that he will address those subjects sooner or later. But for the home theater viewers, that eventuality never arrives. Instead, it's premieres with porn stars, autograph signings and girls, Girls, GIRLS! Besides, these are just minor quibbles, comments geared toward a more complete overview of this man and his self-made dominion. Even as the KISS carnival careens into nostalgia act territory and the once over-the-top histrionics seem tame by today's Slipknot/Marilyn Manson standards, Gene Simmons and his fellow refugees from the 70s stand for something very important in rock and roll: longevity. And if you want to understand how this greasepaint pioneer stayed at the top for so long, give Speaking in Tongues a try. You'll be amazed by what you see...and hear.

The Video:
Utilizing a veritable smorgasbord of filming techniques (video, handheld, 16mm as well as professional film stocks and all manner of cameras), Speaking in Tongues has a terrific 1.33:1 transfer that captures the candid nature of the material perfectly. Just amateur enough to feel intimate but with enough professional polish to indicate the seriousness of the subject matter, this is a fantastic DVD image with lots of artistic touches (grain, shifting color spectrums, and post-production tricks). From the split screen shenanigans to the hilarious pop-up "beavers", Speaking in Tongues is a visual feast.

The Audio:
Naturally, a musician understands the importance of sound, and Speaking in Tongues does provide quite the sampling of acceptable aural attributes. Presented in a pristine Dolby Digital Stereo showcase that allows the songs (most of which are demos from Simmons's amazing backlog of tunes) to shimmer and sparkle, we also get lots of clarity from the in-concert footage. Sometimes, especially during the "at home" sequences, the sonics can get a bit shaky. But overall, the audio has amazing vibrancy and captures the atmosphere of life with a rock star exceptionally well.

The Extras:
Sadly, the only extra on this disc is the video for the single off Simmons's' latest solo album – his first in 27 years (called A**hole, by the way). The mini-movie for "Firestarter" is a clever parody of all those hip-hop, livin' large, bling-bling bonanzas. While Gene looks kind of goofy in his pimp supreme garb, fans of ladies with oversized sex sacks will be in big boob heaven with this hilarious track.

Final Thoughts:
Gene Simmons is one of those people who you could listen to for hours on end. That is, when he's not talking about groupies, sex or some shameless spin doctoring. He is obviously a man of exceptional intelligence and smart business acumen, if only because of his ability to transform a camp cock rock glam band into one of the Top Five groups of all time. That said collection of musicians, and Simmons himself, can still be relevant in a world filled with corporate crap and micromanaged sub genres of sound is a significant feat in and of itself. And when he's not on some jag about his prowess or proclivities, Simmons displays a wealth of insight into many of the more maddening of life's frightening facets. He may occasionally stray into the non-PC arena and underline an already inferred Neanderthal mentality with his musings on mammaries and mommas. But there is one thing that Gene Simmons definitely is and that is devoted to his legion of fans. Speaking in Tongues is a sensational souvenir of Simmons's ongoing desire to reconnect with his audience and invite them into his world. Sure, he can be all about the hard sell and wallet-draining wantonness. But no one should ever confuse the heavy metal persona with the human being. Gene Simmons is a true legend in rock and roll and Speaking in Tongues is an engaging look at why. It's as tantalizing as it is thought provoking.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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