Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979) ***½
Okay, pay attention, because the story of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’s origins is a complicated one. Few of the latter-day Roger Corman productions have followed such a tortuous path from conception to completion. The original idea was for a pretty standard New World Pictures sex comedy, something along the lines of Private Duty Nurses or The Student Teachers, but revolving around high school girls. In this embryonic stage, the movie was to have been called Girls’ Gym, and would have involved exactly the mix of balance beams and bouncing breasts that such a title would imply at New World. Somewhere along the line, though, Corman got it into his head that the movie needed a popular music angle to give it a little something extra, and to him (as to most other people), popular music in the late 1970’s meant just one thing. Thus Girls’ Gym metamorphosed into Disco High. Now this would have been a fairly grim prospect, but Corman the producer had always allowed his people a fairly free hand, so long as they could convince him that doing things their way would make money, and fortunately for us, Joe Dante and Alan Arkush (whom Corman had put in charge of writing and directing the film) had other ideas regarding what to do with this particular project. Both men were rock and roll fans, and had little patience with the boss’s disco cash-in scheme. They wanted to do something more along the lines of the classic rock and roll B-movies of the 50’s, and because Corman’s cinematic alma mater, American International Pictures, had produced a goodly number of those back in the day, that was something the producer could understand. Oddly enough, the choice of the band to be featured in the film came down to two candidates: Cheap Trick and the Ramones, the latter of which had been moving steadily up Arkush’s list of favorite bands ever since the “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” single came out in 1977. Cheap Trick either weren’t interested or wanted too much money, and so the Ramones got the job, setting off a creative spiral that would ultimately produce what must surely be the most psychotically bizarre rock and roll flick of all time.
This is another one of those movies in which most of what happens is completely tangential to the main plot, which is both ridiculously simple and simply ridiculous. The board of education sends in the tyrannical Evelyn Togar (Mary Woronov, from Death Race 2000 and Chopping Mall) to replace the hopelessly senile principal of Vince Lombardi High School. On her first day on the job, she and her weaselly hall monitor sidekicks (Daniel Davies, from The Hollywood Knights, and Loren Lester, who is now the voice of Robin on “Batman: The Animated Series”) cross swords with the rambunctious Riff Randell (P. J. Soles, from Carrie and Bloodbath), who disrupts the school by playing the Ramones’ “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” over the PA system. Riff’s bookish friend, Kate Rambeau (Dey Young, who went on to The Running Man and The Serpent and the Rainbow), tries to save her from detention by taking the fall herself, but Togar ends up punishing both girls.
Meanwhile, the whole student body is in a tizzy over the impending Ramones concert at the Rockatorium. Everyone wants to go, but because getting tickets will require missing school to stand in line, it looks as though no one will be able to. Riff, naturally, is the only student with the nerve to risk the wrath of the draconian Miss Togar by camping out at the Rockatorium three days in advance, so as to be certain of having the first place in line. There are two reasons she wants to be first. On the one hand, the whole school is depending on her for tickets, but more importantly, she has written a song, “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” which she thinks would fit perfectly into her favorite band’s repertoire, and she desperately wants to present them with the sheet music. (Am I the only one who finds it hysterically funny to imagine that any one of the Ramones might be able to read sheet music?) This scheme means trouble for Riff on two fronts. First, Miss Togar despises rock ‘n’ roll, and her research indicates that the Ramones are the most dangerous rock band of them all. As Togar demonstrates to music teacher Mr. McGree (Paul Bartel, from Piranha and Escape from L.A.) and girls’ gym teacher Coach Steroid (Alix Elias of Munchies), even a few moments’ exposure to their music at concert volume causes spontaneous combustion in laboratory mice— the poor creatures explode halfway through the second verse! Togar is thus highly suspicious of Riff’s prolonged absence from school (the exceptionally lame forged excuse notes handed in by Kate don’t exactly help, either), and is apt to do something drastic if she finds out just what Riff’s been doing with all that time off. Secondly, while waiting for the tickets to go on sale, Riff runs afoul of a groupie named Angel Dust (Lynn Farrell), who takes exception to Riff’s self-proclaimed status as the Ramones’ number-one fan. Angel is particularly eager to prevent Riff from getting the music to “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” into the band’s hands. The unthinkable happens when Riff gets back to school, and her secret makes its way to Togar’s ears. The principal gleefully confiscates both Riff’s and Kate’s tickets, and donates them to a charity raffle, leaving them the only girls in the school who will not be attending the show.
Then there’s the romantic subplot. Kate is in love with a boy named Tom Roberts (Hell Night’s Vincent Van Patten), who can’t get a date for the life of him, despite being captain of the varsity football team. His problem is that he’s boring, and is incapable of coming up with anything to say to a girl other than, “Nice weather we’re having— a little dry though... Although I hear it’s raining cats and dogs in Idaho!” Tom, for his part, only has eyes for Riff Randell, who wants nothing to do with him because she’s in love with Joey Ramone. The crux of this subplot is that Tom goes to Eaglebauer (Clint Howard, from The Wraith and Ticks), the kid with all the best connections, and draws up a contract for a date with Riff. Meanwhile, Kate signs her own Eaglebauer contract for a date with Tom. Eaglebauer’s solution is sheer genius: he tells Tom that Kate is his “practice date,” with whom he will have to train to polish his skills for the main event with Riff! Eventually, all four kids make arrangements for a double date on the night of the Ramones show to which Riff and Kate will now not be going.
Except the girls get to go after all, because Riff wins them a new pair of tickets in a call-in contest on the Screamin’ Steve Stevens radio show. Now Tom and Eaglebauer will have to crash the concert in order to spend the evening with them. There is also the inevitable confrontation with Angel at the show, and the equally inevitable meeting between Riff and her idols backstage, at which she finally manages to present her song to the Ramones. In the end, Riff and the other students of Vince Lombardi High, inspired by the spirit of rock and roll rebellion, square up accounts with Miss Togar and her toadying hall monitors, taking over the school and finally blowing it up while the Ramones stage a guerilla concert on the front lawn to unveil their rendition of Riff’s masterwork.
Not a lot of plot for two whole hours, eh? Fortunately, the long running time is due to the best possible excuse: the story grinds to a halt every ten minutes or so while the Ramones do their stuff. Dante and Arkush cram an amazing amount of music into this movie, including two or three consecutive songs during the big concert scene. And considering that neither Dante nor Arkush was exactly a punk rocker, their choice of material for the soundtrack is astonishingly astute: “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Pinhead,” “Do You Wanna Dance,” “California Sun,” and a good six or seven others. The only questionable inclusions are a couple of sappy ballads, but one of these is improved tremendously by being set to a fantasy of Riff’s in which the band serenades her while she gets ready for bed— when Riff pulls back the shower curtain to step inside, she finds Dee Dee already there, playing his (unplugged) bass while the water sprays against the side of his head!
The thing about Rock ‘n’ Roll High School that really stands out above all else (yet which I somehow failed to notice when I last saw it some twelve years ago) is the extent to which it plays like a Bizarro World version of Grease, and I think it’s probably significant that both movies were released in the same year. Nearly all of the same elements are on display (although Rock ‘n’ Roll High School thankfully has only one musical number in the conventional sense— a scene in which all the characters drop whatever it was they were doing and sing— and even it only just barely qualifies), but they are used to such drastically different effect. While Grease presents a mawkishly idealized vision of a 1950’s that never was, Joe Dante and Alan Arkush ridicule the entire notion of nostalgia, applying the same mythmaking techniques to their own time to create a late 1970’s that couldn’t possibly be. We are, after all, talking about a movie that posits the Ramones as a pop-music phenomenon of Beatles-esque proportions, at a time when it was a good month for the band if they brought in enough money to keep Dee Dee supplied with smack. A movie that posits a high school music teacher switching allegiances, and proclaiming, “I regret that I have but one life to give for rock and roll!” A movie that posits Joey Ramone, of all people, as a teen heartthrob!!!! (Although the filmmakers do let one little ray of reality peek through the madness of the script on this point. As the Ramones put on their climactic performance of the title song, police chief Klein [Dick Miller, from The Little Shop of Horrors and Truck Turner] shakes his head and says to Miss Togar, “They’re ugly... Ugly, ugly, ugly people...”) It is these perversions, subversions, and inversions of the standard rock and roll movie conventions, even more than such patent absurdities as Eaglebauer selling forged hall passes, fixed football game outcomes, and dates with the popular kids from his secret office in the boys’ bathroom, that give Rock ‘n’ Roll High School it surreal satirical bite. And to think that this could have been just another T & A movie...