Most of us have movies that we regularly return to, films that rarely fail to make us feel good whenever they appear on-screen. For me, one of these cinematic touchstones is Alan Arkush's Rock 'N' Roll High School (1979), a flick I happily re-watched on DVD this past weekend.
To be sure, part of my love for this drive-in masterwork derives from my fannish infatuation with punk rock pioneers, the Ramones, who are the celebrity stars of this low-budget (reportedly made for less than $300,000) rock movie musical. But that's not the only factor. Even without the boys and their music (happily all over the movie, including a five song concert), this Roger Corman produced cheapie has plenty goin' for it: great non-Ramones tracks (Nick Lowe, Eno, "Smokin' In the Boys' Room," MC-5's "High School," and more) anarchic throw-it-against-the-wall comedy (note the presence of a neophyte director Jerry Zucker in the credits as an A.D.); always-entertaining Corman Stock Company Regulars, Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov and a too-briefly seen Dick Miller ("These are ugly, ugly people!" this character mug observes when he sees the New York punkers for the first time); plus big-eyed B-Movie Diva P.J. Soles at her most unstoppable as Riff Randell, Number One Ramones Fan.
The story (written by Arkush and Joe Dante, who in the spirit of quick-shoot filmmaking also lensed a few uncredited scenes) is set at Vince Lombardi High School in the late seventies. The school's in chaos and its new principal, Evelyn Togar (Woronov), has just taken on the task of whipping the students into line. Togar is Woronov at her most comically imperious: few actresses could be so simultaneously sexy and off-putting as Woronov. With the aid of two toadying hall monitors named Hansel & Gretel (Loren Lester and Daniel Davies), she cracks down on the student body, which, of course, means stomping out that nasty ol' rock 'n' roll music.
Down at the student level, we have would-be songwriter Riff, bookish girl genius Kate Rambeau (Dey Young), doofus quarterback Tom Roberts (Vince Van Patten) and school dealmaker Eaglebauer (played with Bilko-esque glee by Clint Howard). Riff dreams of having one of her songs done by the Ramones and hopes to meet the band during their big concert at the Rockatorium. (In one priceless scene, she has a stoned fantasy about the boys serenading her in her bedroom, guitarist Johnny strumming in a running shower.) Kate dreams of making it with Tom; Tom, who is totally inept with women, just plain wants to score. He goes to Eaglebauer for advice, and Eaglebauer signs him up for practice sessions with Kate. A fairly typical teen flick romance, though it's played here at a heightened level of goofiness.
Arkush (abetted by screenwriters Richard Whitley & Russ Dvonch, the latter playing a perpetually victimized freshman) shoots this all at a frenetic pitch: with a slew of irrelevant side gags and exaggeration. In one memorable moment, for instance, Togar demonstrates the dangers of rock 'n' roll to Bartel’s stuffy music teacher, Mister McCree, by subjecting a lab mouse to high decibels of the Ramones' music. The poor mouse explodes. Later on the flick, we see a human-sized rodent trying to get into the band's concert appearance, carrying headphones to protect itself. During the film’s finale, when all of the students' parents have been called in to witness their kids' transgressions, we see a large mama mouse (courtesy of Rob Bottin) in an apron that says, "I hate mouse work." Silly? Sure. Though not as outlandish as Arkush would get with his later rock concert comedy, Get Crazy.
The biggest gag in High School, though, is its central premise: an all-American high school where every student - cheerleaders, jock, bespectacled girl nerds - is into the Ramones. Even Bartel's straight-laced music teacher eventually sees the light and tells the boys, "You're the Beethovens of our time!" In reality, of course, the marble-mouthed NY punks were too defiantly geeky to achieve the kind of mass audience success that the movie grants 'em. That niggling fact doesn't keep Rock 'N' Roll High School from being one of the greatest rock movie musicals ever made. When Joey and the boys lead the young cast of the film down the halls of Lombardi High to the stripped-down strains of "Do You Wanna Dance?" it's like the last hurrah of the teenaged drive-in movie. Too bad so few real teenagers actually saw the flick in that venue. . .
As a movie, Rock 'N' Roll High School shows the limitations of its budget and its enthusiastic-but-inexperienced makers. (A few of its jokes come off flatter than they should, simply because they're shot too quickly and haphazardly.) Some elements would reappear in later, slicker movies by Arkush & Dante - deejay Don Steele, for instance, who appears as Screamin' Steve in the picture, plays a similar roll as Rockin' Ricky in Dante’s Gremlins, while the larger-than-life mouse is paralleled by an anthropomorphic Crumb-styed joint in Get Crazy - as if both moviemakers really had a pressing need to get these bits right a second time. But for all its many flaws (heck, in part, because of 'em!), Rock 'N' Roll High School successfully pulls you into its punked-out parallel universe. "Things sure have changed since we got kicked out of high school," lead singer Joey Ramone observes as he strides through the halls of the soon-to-be-decimated school building.
True, Joey. But teen-aged lust, "mindless" adult authoritarianism and the glory of great rock 'n' roll remain ever constant. . .