By Norm Nielsen
Come on and admit it: At least once (if not many times) during your high school years, you wished that some event closed down the school while your classmates danced in the halls to a savage rock ‘n’ roll beat. Allan Arkush’s 1979 Rock ‘n’ Roll High School delivers on that fantasy. because as the saying goes, “it’s a good rock ‘n’ roll song if it has a good beat, you can dance to it, and your parents hate it.”
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School‘s story line is simple—in fact, silly. Vince Lombardy High School (“Winning isn’t the most important thing….It’s the only thing.”), located somewhere in southern California is an unruly place where students would rather rock than study. Leading the student body is cheerleader Riff Randall (played by P.J. Soles) who is “the Ramones’ number one fan.” Riff Randall’s fantasy is to get her song “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” to Joey Ramone, on whom she has a major crush. The students have driven previous principals to nervous breakdowns. The evil new principal, Miss Togar (Mary Wornov), is determined to bring order to the school by weeding out the disruptive kids, starting with Riff. Riff’s best friend Kate Rambeau’s (Dey Young) fantasy is to date nerdy football star Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten). But Tom is so socially inept that he contracts with the school’s sleazy hustler Eaglebauer (Clint Howard (Ron Howard’s brother)) for dating lessons because Eaglebauer can get you anything from pot to babes. The subplots merge during an ultra high energy Ramones show and the film concludes with an anarchistic but fun finish.
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School was built around the Ramones. Producer Roger Corman had the idea for a film titled Disco High, but director Allan Arkush convinced Corman that disco was on the way out and punk rock was in. The Ramones were signed onto the project because their price was right. Ever cost conscious, Roger Corman budgeted the film for $165,000, but it eventually cost approximately $300,000 to produce of which the Ramones were paid only $25,000, including the use of their songs. The Ramones had to do shows in southern California to pay for their hotel bills during filming. The film’s budget was so tight that its star, P.J. Soles, insisted on buying her own wardrobe so that she would look good for her part. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School was ultimately a huge money maker for Corman’s New World Pictures largely because of the Ramones’ blazing performances.
While not a great film, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is a lot of fun. It satirizes many petty high school annoyances and acts out several teenage dreams. You can dance to the soundtrack, which in addition to the Ramones features songs by Alice Cooper, Chuck Berry, Nick Lowe, The Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, Devo, MC5, Fleetwood Mac, and Paul McCartney, among many others. P.J. Soles, in her only lead role, commands the screen by sheer charisma and enthusiasm. That a girl as perky, bouncy, smart, and pretty as Riff Randall would be madly in love with such songs as “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Teenage Lobotomy” is a pretty good joke in itself. Sole’s character Riff Randall has one goal: not to sleep with Joey Ramone, as you might expect of a cheapie teen comedy, but to get him to look at the song she’s written for the Ramones—that being “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.” Thus, this is a 1970’s teen movie about a driven, intelligent, rebellious, and creative girl, without making a huge point of it. That alone sets the film apart.
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School includes some interesting deep-focus camera work by cinematographer Dean Cundey. There is a very cool sequence of a message from Principal Togar being delivered to music teacher Mr. McGree’s (Paul Bartel) ear via a paper airplane flying through the school building and across the campus that makes you think “how did they do that?” There is also a great sequence in which Principal Togar demonstrates The Rockometer, a device that shows the effects of loud music on laboratory mice: Muzak and Pat Boone are on the low end of the Rockometer scale and The Who and Ramones at the top (a scale to which I can personally attest). If you are a Ramones fan or are curious of what they were about, then Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is essential. Indeed, 2016 is the 40th anniversary of the release of the Ramones’ eponymous first LP, and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School may be the their best performance captured on film. Gabba, gabba, hey.
Norm Nielsen is a Scarecrow Project member and volunteer.