(Allan Arkush, US, 1979, 84 mins.)
"When we found out Roger Corman was behind the picture, we said, sure, we'll doit because we knew he had a reputation and we knew he made good movies."
-- Johnny Ramone (1948-2004)
As with Hair and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Rock 'n' Roll High School pivots around the idea that the freaks have something to teach the squares, namely: how to live.
Unlike its predecessors, Allan Arkush's first feature crosses the line separating the transgressive from the anarchic. Rocky Horror also builds to a big finish, but it's a tragedy (the failure of an impossible dream), not a triumph (fantasy made flesh).
Vince Van Patten plays the designated Brad: football captain Tom Roberts. Kate (Dey Young) is the cute nerd who'd give anything to be his girl; a future Janet, you might say. Principal Togar (Mary Woronov, doing her best Eve Arden impression) wishes more students would follow his lead. Death Race 2000 director Paul Bartel (Woronov's husband) plays Mr. McGree, a music teacher who longs to let his freak flag fly. By introducing these four dweebs in a row, Arkush sets the scene: before the film comes to an end, rock 'n' roll will set them free or eat them alive.
Instead of a male rebel rocker, Arkush and co-writers Richard Whitley and Russ Dvonch, who plays the Harold Lloyd-inspired "Freshman," offer a female: Riff Randell (P.J. Soles). Sure, she's a Ramones fan, but she's also a go-getter, a DJ who wants to write songs for the band.
More popular than cool, Tom could get any girl at Vince Lombardi High School, but he covets Riff, who lusts after leggy lead singer Joey Ramone, so he seeks advice from school fixer Eaglebauer (Clint Howard), a sort of freaky square.
In the first of four commentary tracks, Whitley explains that he originally envisioned the scenario with the Yardbirds, while Roger Corman encouraged the team to call the film Disco High in an attempt to ride Saturday Night Fever's box office-busting coattails.
Other artists under consideration included Todd Rundgren, Cheap Trick, Van Halen, and Devo, while Richard Meltzer, Darby Crash, and Pat Smear all show up as extras.
Meanwhile, the NYC-based Ramones enter the L.A. scene by performing in a moving convertible--like something out of Grease, but hipper (Joey's even chomping on chicken vindaloo). Riff buys everyone tickets to the concert, and the anarchy begins.
Though Arkush and Co. fail to explain where she got $1000 (100 X $10), this is the kind of film where it doesn't really matter. She has her own bathroom, so her unseen family must have money, and for once, that's okay.
Then Togar relieves Randell of her tickets until she wins them back through a radio contest. Instead of Tom, she takes Kate. Naturally, everyone ends up at the show, except for the principal (even McGree can be seen bopping about in his beret).
Unlike Suburbia, which features a few different bands at one gig, the Ramones receive a generous amount of time, and they deliver a great set--the way "Teenage Lobotomy" comes complete with subtitles that grow as the song goes along adds to the fun.
After Togar banishes rock from the school, the students take their revenge with support from Da Bruddas and, by extension, the MC5 (the riot occurs while Riff's copy of Back in the USA plays on the public address system). The famously fiery ending builds on previous teen-revenge touchstones like Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct and Lindsay Anderson's If..., influences the filmmaker readily acknowledges in his commentary.
Part of the reason Rock 'n' Roll High School works so well is that it offers the kind of throwaway gags that filled the pages of Mad magazine. Brownsville Station's "Smokin' in the Boy's Room" doesn't just set the scene for a cloud of cigarette smoke, but for drug deals and hookah parties--all taking place within the same restroom.
See also: the paper airplane, the pinhead, the scalper, the nuns, and the giant mouse (truly a masterstroke). Says Arkush, "A lot of this stuff was just sort of made up on the spot." For my money, the only gag that doesn't work concerns the cafeteria-worker food-pelting. Compared to the rest of this good-natured film, it's unnecessarily cruel.
Additional extras on this special edition Shout Factory disc include the press book, photo galleries, radio spots, script pages from deleted scenes, and three more commentary tracks: Corman and Young; Arkush, Howard, and Soles (she admits it took some time to get into the Ramones); and Whitley and Dvonch (second unit director Joe Dante receives a story credit). In the first track, producer Michael Finnell joins Arkush and Whitley.
In his introduction, Arkush, who went on to create Crossing Jordan and Heroes, says that Rock 'n' Roll High School "has a very, very special place in my heart." According to Corman, it was shot in 15 days for around $200,000 (Arkush remembers a 20-day shoot).
Against all odds, the film made its way to Anchorage, AK where I caught a screening at the Fireweed Theater. Though they had just released their fourth LP, Road to Ruin, I had no idea who the Ramones were, but I loved the film. I still do.
Previous: Suburbia. Next: Ladies and Gentleman, the Fabulous Stains.
Roger Corman wanted the poster look exactly like the one for National Lampoon's Animal House. He got his wish. Image from TampaBay.com.