Search This Blog

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Since the rock 'n' roll era dawned, each decade has experienced a youth-oriented motion picture that defined the zeitgeist of that generation; the 1950's had JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957),

the Sixties had A HARD DAY'S NIGHT (1964),

the Eighties got PURPLE RAIN (1984),

and the Nineties got COOL AS ICE (1991),

a stark cinematic statement that foreshadowed just how much the last decade of the twentieth century would bite the big one.

For those of us who came of age when I did — roughly between 1978 and 1983 — there was a lot going on in the pop music scene. Arena rock like that wrought by the flatulent Kiss, the plague that was disco, and the punk rock/new wave movements all had their moments and to some degree each offered adolescents a sound they could call their own. It was twenty years past the birth of rock and over ten since the Beatles rewrote the genre, so what followed was a matter of everything getting hashed out as musicians were given more creative leeway in which to express their particular flavor of the form. The kids of my generation pretty much only had a choice of the rock camp or the legion of disco followers with which to stake our alliances, and the big movie for the disco contingent was the unintentionally hilarious SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1978), a film that made a gazillion bucks at the box office and transformed John Travolta from an amusing TV sitcom pretty boy into a bona fide superstar.

John Travolta shakes his booty into film immortality, while Karen Lynn Gorney gears up to sign 8x10's at the Howard Johnson's nostalgia expo.

Us kids what liked punk and new wave got 1979's ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, a perfect confluence of MAD magazine-style humor, teen fantasies of romance and rebellion, and the grotty three-chord majesty of the Ramones, unarguably one of the ugliest bands in the history of western civilization.

The Monkees they ain't.

Vomited onto screens from Roger Corman's New World Pictures and directed by Allan Arkush, ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL has only the barest of plots that serves as an excuse for silliness that makes it pretty much a live-action cartoon. Vince Lombardi High is a textbook example of an asylum where the inmates run the madhouse, a place where the faculty can't cope with the exuberant, rock 'n' roll-loving students led by Riff Randell (P.J. Soles, twenty-eight at the time and playing seventeen),

a blonde rocker-girl who's kind of the living embodiment of the spirit of rock. As the previous principal is carted away to the funny farm in a straight jacket, he is replaced by Miss Evelyn Togar (the incomparable Mary Woronov),

an over-the-top stern disciplinarian who looks like she could give Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS a run for her money.

The change in regime begins in earnest when Togar declares her intention of whipping the place into shape and banning all forms of that noxious rock 'n' roll music, a course of action that puts her at odds with Riff, and in no time the battle lines are drawn and a war of back-and-forth escalation begins. Riff's efforts are at first somewhat subtle, but as Togar's tyranny squeezes the school by the yarbles, Riff becomes a firebrand of humorous teenage piss and vinegar, going so far as to enlist the mighty Ramones as the shock troops for her takeover and ultimate apocalyptic destruction of Vince Lombardi High.

Thrown into the mix is a subplot about a preppy square (Vince Van Patten) who wants a date with Riff, while Riff's best friend, brainy Kate Rambeau (Dey Young), wants a date with the preppy stiff, but Riff doesn't even know the guy exists; her heart belongs to rock 'n' roll in general and the Ramones in particular, and there's an hilarious musical fantasy sequence where Riff sparks up a joint in her bedroom while imagining that the Ramones have come to visit her. Forest Hills' answer to the Fantastic Four serenade her with "I Want You Around," crooned by Joey Ramone, who looks like he was just reanimated by a particularly warped voodoo practitioner. Riff eats it all up, swooning in the presence of such a dreamboat, and when she's so aroused that she needs to cool off, she heads to the shower only to find songwriter/bassist/professional heroin addict Dee Dee Ramone strumming his heart out under the running water.

Yes, an electric bass in the shower. Don't quibble...

This scene is a triumph of sheer absurdity, turning such teen idol fantasies as seen in countless films since the 1960's on their heads and allowing the Ramones the kind of TIGER BEAT glamor-boy adulation that would never happen in a sane universe (and didn't). The only way it could have possibly been any funnier is if Annette Funicello or Sandra Dee had filled in for P.J. Soles.

And speaking of P.J. Soles, ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL would never have worked without her. Soles's performance as Riff Randell, unattainable rock 'n' roll pixie, is peppy as a motherfucker and she embraces the film's cartoonish extremes with a completely straight face, yet while she went on to do STRIPES a year later, Soles never again had a role that turned her loose in the way that Riff Randell did. And that, my friends, is a cosmic injustice.

A cornucopia of truly silly sight gags and loony dialogue, some of ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL's highlights include:
  • A ridiculous running gag about how loud rock music causes mice to explode.
  • Miss Togar meeting the band and, utterly horrified, asking them, "Do your parents know you're Ramones?"
  • Clint Howard's brilliant and enthusiastic turn as Eaglebauer, the school's most enterprising entrepreneur.
  • The late Paul Bartel as stodgy but open-minded music teacher Mr. McCree, who at first thinks the Ramones are an Italian classical combo, and later becomes the one teacher who joins the rebellion and — with a completely straight face — declares the Ramones to be the Mozarts of the twentieth century.
  • The three-day-long, increasingly unbelievable list of excuses Riff uses to ditch school so she can be first in line to buy tickets to a Ramones concert.
  • "The Real Don Steele" devouring the scenery as radio deejay Screamin' Steve Stevens.
  • The Ramones proving beyond all shadow of a doubt that they cannot act, a point that actually helps their performances.
  • The filmmakers not pussying out, and actually blowing the high school into oblivion just before the end credits roll, a fantasy I had almost daily during my entire post-elementary school/pre-college education.
And the icing on the cake: a kickass Ramones concert staged for the film that captures the boys in their pre-Phil Spector prime, complete with a pinhead built and played by makeup genius Rob Bottin before he hit the big time with THE HOWLING (1980) and John Carpenter's THE THING (1982).

Gloriously stoopid, fast-paced, and balls-out fun, ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL is one of the last great 1970's B-movies and should be checked out by anyone with even the slightest interest in the Ramones. In fact, this would make the perfect top half of a double bill with END OF THE CENTURY (2003), and excellent warts-and-all documentary chronicling the history of the Ramones, a truly maddening case study of a pioneering band that never received the rewards that they were long due, despite influencing other musicians like nobody's business. (It's a bit of a downer at times, but it offers the perfect counterpoint to ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL's ebullience and trots out the group's songs in an historical context.)

Oh, and the only movie that nearly equals ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL in terms of outright lunacy and musical fun is 1983's GET CRAZY, also from New World and definitely worthy of a post all its own. (It also deserves a release on DVD immediately!)