Rock ‘n’ Roll High School

Had Roger Corman not come to his senses, I might be writing about Disco High. Ever the opportunist, Corman wanted his then-company, New World, to crank out a quickie flick about what he thought was the big fad. But director Allan Arkush knew that disco was on the way out, and managed to persuade Corman that rock and roll was indeed coming back. Reportedly, the film was designed as a vehicle for Cheap Trick, but they were too big at the time, so Arkush settled for the Ramones.

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is built around the Queens retro-rock band (they disliked the term “punk,” and in truth they were about as punk as the Stray Cats; it was their audience that was punk), a shrine to them and to general rebellion — though, of course, safe rebellion, meaning that the kids in the film are essentially harmless, up against a school administration so unyielding that it links Ramones music to the death of white mice.

R&RHS owes whatever stature it has to the presence of the Ramones and to a mix of nostalgia and affection; to be honest, it’s not a very good movie on the face of it (it’s written and directed so crudely it makes Animal House look like a Whit Stillman film). But one person does carry you through the mess: P.J. Soles as Riff Randell, cheerleader at Vince Lombardi High School, and the Ramones’ biggest fan. That a girl as perky, bouncy, and blonde as Riff would be madly in love with such songs as “Blitzkrieg Bop” is a pretty good joke in itself. And P.J. Soles, in what turned out to be her only lead role, commands the screen by sheer charisma and enthusiasm. Relegated to mere girlfriend roles (though she was still engaging) in Halloween and Stripes, Soles wasn’t really given room to stretch, though I remember an amusing bit in Halloween where she’s heard in the background nattering on about how it doesn’t matter if you have your books or not. Here, her character has one goal: not to sleep with Joey Ramone, as you might expect of a cheapie teen comedy, but to get him to look at the song she’s written for the Ramones — “Rock and Roll High School,” of course. So we have a ’70s teen movie about a driven, intelligent, rebellious, and creative girl, without making a huge point of it. That alone sets the film apart.

Much of the rest of the movie is lowbrow farce, though imaginatively cast. Mary Woronov, that great perverse goddess, turns up as the film’s chief villain, Principal Togar, who loathes rock music and has two cringing hall monitors to do her bidding. Woronov’s longtime friend and collaborator Paul Bartel comes aboard as a music teacher who eventually lets go of his stuffy attachment to Beethoven and learns to appreciate the Ramones. An early role for Clint Howard allows him some flashy comic moments as Eaglebauer, the school guru, who can get you anything from booze to babes (he caters primarily to the boys, and even has a secretary). No teen movie would be complete without a dull, well-scrubbed couple, and we get that with Vincent Van Patten as an awkward jock and Dey Young as a shy girl with a crush on him. Young is a bit more interesting than Van Patten, who overworks his doofus desperation; we’re meant to sympathize with him while laughing at the mistreatment of a dorky freshman — the movie is a little hypocritical. (And, at times, a little too cartoonish — witness the giant talking mouse, built, I was amused to learn, by Rob Bottin.)

R&RHS was an obvious influence on Detroit Rock City (1999), which shares this film’s single-minded devotion to a ’70s band (the bands couldn’t be less alike, though KISS did cover a Ramones song on a tribute album). Detroit Rock City, though, wisely kept KISS themselves offscreen for most of the movie. Arkush and his writers drag the Ramones into one of Riff’s fantasies, and their fans will be embarrassed on their behalf (particularly since the band only got $5,000 for their participation — $3,000 of which went to hospital bills when Dee Dee Ramone ODed during filming). None of the Ramones can act, so they’re given noncommittal, dead-sounding lines, and they come across (when not performing music) like a shamefaced rock band doing a guest shot on some late-’70s sitcom. Joey Ramone in particular — God rest his soul — was not a screen natural; all of the Ramones, in fact, have a stoic, cool disregard for the camera and give nothing of themselves to the movie audience, but Joey looks especially ill at ease. A longhaired chinless geek who broke through into coolness by way of a commanding voice (much like Howard Stern and Marilyn Manson), Joey throws the movie’s tone off a bit; how can we revere this guy (and we do, if we’re Ramones boosters) and also laugh at the dork getting shoved into a locker who could’ve been Joey ten years prior?

Still, for all its crudities and flaws, this is a fun love letter to one of the true icons of ’70s rock, and it makes sense that the Ramones’ entry into film was in a cheapjack Roger Corman production rather than in pricier garbage greenlit by a Hollywood studio head trying to seem hip. (Corman only cared about being hip inasmuch as it would turn him a profit — he’s always been refreshingly upfront about that.) The Ramones, after all, drew from the same well of B-movies that Corman did (so did their contemporaries KISS, and Rob Zombie after them). And the footage of the band in concert, shot over three days, with a real and reportedly hostile crowd of fans, is capably shot and well-edited.

The movie’s climax, with the band blaring the title track while the school burns, pulled me up short a little in this post-Columbine era; I reflected that such a finale would never see the light of a projector today, and more’s the pity. We may never again see a teen comedy in which a school can explode and the movie can still be considered essentially good-hearted.

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