There was a time in the 1970s when film distributors were able to test-market their more offbeat offerings as “Midnight Movies” for adventurous moviegoers. Sometimes these developed into cult phenomenas like El Topo (1971), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), or Eraserhead (1976). Sometimes they failed to find any audience at all like Pelvis (aka All Dressed Up in Rubber with No Place to Go, 1977) or Elevator Girls in Bondage (1972). Arriving at the tail end of the Midnight Movie craze, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979) fell somewhere between these two extremes.
While it was only a modest success at the box office, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School has since developed a fervent niche following. Scripted by Richard Whitley, Joe Dante, former Variety critic Joseph McBride, and Russ Dvonch (of the National Lampoon), the movie 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.
Strangely enough, neither P.J. Soles or Dey Young as her straightlaced science nerd pal Kate were familiar with the Ramones before making the film. Soles said in an interview with Cryptic Rock that director Arkush “had given me a cassette of The Ramones and said, “You are their number one fan, go home and learn all these songs, you have to love these guys.” I remember first putting it on thinking, “Oh my god, I do not relate to this music,” because I was listening to Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and the Eagles. I did not relate to it, but once I met them, day one of shooting, which was the scene when they are in my bedroom and Joey Ramone sings to me; that was a pretty shocking first day, but by the end of that, I felt they were so nice. I liked them right away because they were authentic.”
Dey Young confessed in an interview with Ron Hart for Blurt, “I had never even heard of the Ramones, let alone punk rock so that was a huge eye opening experience for me.” She also added, “…my first impression was that they were aliens and addicted to pizza. They probably looked at me the same way, although I preferred salads and Tab.”
On the other hand, Mary Woronov knew about the Ramones and was already a fan of West Coast punk bands like X and Fear. Her performance as Miss Togar was totally her own creation. In an interview with the A.V. Club, she remembered, They just let me go. Totally unstructured. I told Allan [Arkush], “Thank you for this role, because what I need is just a nice TV series, and I’m gonna do it like I’m Eve Arden.” And he said, “That’s fine, Mary.” And then they dressed me up and they gave me makeup, I showed up on set with all these punk-rockers, and… I just turned into Miss Togar. I didn’t even think about it. That was it. She was a scream for me.”
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”).
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. In addition, there are fun supporting performances by Vincent Van Patten as a clueless jock and his wheeler dealer pal Clint Howard plus cameos by Hollywood veterans like Grady Sutton (The Bank Dick) and cult icons Dick Miller (A Bucket of Blood) and disc jockey Don Steele (Death Race 2000) as Screamin’ Steve Stevens.
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. Arkush would go on to forge a long career in directing TV series episodes (St. Elsewhere, Moonlighting, Crossing Jordan) but his film career never really took off due to two misfires, Heartbeeps (1981), a sci-fi comedy about two robot in love, and the rock industry satire Get Crazy (1983). Regardless, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Arkush’s earlier collaboration with Joe Dante, Hollywood Boulevard (1976), are now considered cult classics of the 1970s.
Over the years, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School has been released in various editions on DVD with numerous extra features but if you are a fan of the movie, you should spring for the 40th anniversary edition on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory which was released in November 2019. Among the disc supplements are four separate audio commentaries (one featuring director Allan Arkush, PJ Soles and Clint Howard), numerous interviews with Roger Corman, Dey Young, Vincent Van Patten and other key cast/crew members, a retrospective “making of” documentary and more.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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