Rock 'n Roll High School
Arriving at the tail end of the Midnight Movie craze, Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979) fell somewhere between these two extremes and, while only a modest success at the box office, has since developed a small but fervent following. Scripted by Richard Whitley, Joe Dante, former Variety critic Joseph McBride, and Russ Dvonch (of the National Lampoon), Rock 'n' Roll High School is a fast-and-loose parody of high school life with plenty of anti-establishment posturing and a cheerfully anarchic sense of humor. To this day, the film remains one of the more inspired offerings from New World Pictures, which was founded by low-budget cult director Roger Corman.
Set in Vince Lombardi High, an institution with the lowest academic standing in California, Rock 'n' Roll High School pits cheerleader Riff Randell (P.J. Soles) and her fellow students against the new principal, the insufferable Miss Togar (Mary Woronov), and her evil henchmen. A showdown between the two factions, sparked by rock 'n' roll - specifically the music of the Ramones - leads to a widespread riot on the campus. This is probably the only American film in existence where an educational institution is completely trashed by the end and no one is punished.
Although both Cheap Trick and Todd Rundgren were originally considered as the showcase musical act in the film, the Ramones were always the first choice of director Allan Arkush. And more than anything else, Rock 'n' Roll High School serves as an excellent showcase for this band, who were the total antithesis of pretty boy rock star pinups. Thanks to this film, the Ramones, who were not that well known outside of the New York punk rock scene, were exposed to a legion of new fans who fell in love with their hard-driving three-chord speed rock and their grungy sense of fashion - torn blue jeans, black leather jackets, dark sunglasses. Their first onscreen appearance in Rock 'n' Roll High School is particularly memorable and sets the appropriate tone for the rest of the film: The band is being driven down the street in a convertible while eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and flinging pieces of it at their fans on the sidewalk. During the climatic concert sequence, the group's songs are accompanied by subtitles on the screen so you can sing along with the deranged lyrics.
In an interview with Lloyd Sacks of The New York Times, director Arkush recalls working with the Ramones on Rock 'n' Roll High School: "There was a lot of give and take as to how the Ramones were going to be presented. I was particularly concerned with whether they were going to be comfortable coming off as dumb as their songs imply they are. But they said that was fine....The concert sequence (filmed at the Roxy in Los Angeles) took twenty hours to shoot, but they never complained, even though they had to play the same six songs over and over again. The crew didn't know who the Ramones were when we started. But at the end, everyone was singing 'Pinhead.' The band members even incorporated some of their own ideas into the film: Dee Dee Ramone, a compulsive shower taker, suggested the fantasy sequence where he turns up in Riff Randell's bathtub playing bass guitar. And the late Joey Ramone came up with the onscreen gimmick of having health food force-fed into his mouth after a concert."
Ramones fans were delighted with the soundtrack, which included some of their favorite tunes - "Teenage Lobotomy," "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker," "Blitzkrieg Bop," and the title song, which was written specifically for this film. The soundtrack also includes musical selections from such '70s rock acts as Alice Cooper ("School's Out"), Devo ("Come Back Jonee"), and Brownsville Station ("Smoking in the Boy's Room"). But even if you aren't a fan of these groups, there are plenty of other things to enjoy in Rock 'n' Roll High School: P. J. Sole's energetic portrayal of the Ramones number-one fan, the campy performances of Mary Woronov and Paul Bartel, who would later team up for another cult comedy, Eating Raoul (1982), and Allan Arkush's crazy-quilt direction, which perfectly integrates musical numbers with sight gags about exploding laboratory mice. It should come as no surprise that Arkush's main inspiration for Rock 'n' Roll High School was The Girl Can't Help It (1956), a seminal rock 'n' roll film that inserted rock acts from the period (Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Little Richard, etc.) into a satire of the recording industry.
Producer: Roger Corman, Michael Finnell
Director: Allan Arkush
Screenplay: Joe Dante, Russ Dvonch, Joseph McBride, Richard Whitley
Art Direction: Marie Kordus
Cinematography: Dean Cundey
Costume Design: Jack Buehler
Film Editing: Larry Bock, Gail Werbin
Original Music: The Ramones
Principal Cast: P.J. Soles (Riff Randell), Vincent Van Patten (Tom Roberts), Clint Howard (Eaglebauer), Dey Young (Kate Rambeau), Mary Woronov (Evelyn Togar).
C-93m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford