Rock ‘n’ Roll High School

Rock 'n' Roll High SchoolSynopsis: Vince Lombardi High School has quite a reputation: it’s the wildest, most rockin’ high school around! That is, until a thug of a principle, Miss Togar, comes along and tries to make the school a totalitarian state. With the help of The Ramones, the students of Vince Lombardi battle to a truly explosive conclusion!

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Rock ‘n’ Roll High School 8.0

eyelights: Ramones. the raw energy of film. the eagerness of the cast. the zany humour.
eyesores: its low budget quality. its many groaners.

“Did you know they’re all brothers? I’m gonna be the only sister in the Ramones.”

I still remember the impact that ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’ had on me when I first saw it. I was at a close friend’s house one night and, while she was busy doing something else, I popped into the VCR a VHS tape she had lying about. It had a recording of the film lifted from a TV broadcast.

I had never paid any attention to the Ramones before. I knew of them, but found them rather unappealing and had consequently steered clear of them. Let’s just say that the whole punk aesthetic had failed to win me over, having mostly been exposed to the nasty-looking Sid Vicious.

But here I was watching a teen sex comedy from the late ’70s and suddenly the Ramones showed up in it: the tape, for some reason, had been cued to the midway point, right before the Ramones’ concert segment and, before I knew it, I was propelled into their delicious pop-punk fury.

I had never experienced anything like it before.

Not only was the music fast and edgy, it was catchy and poppy. It made you want to pump your fist, but also sing along. And this mini-concert performance, a whopping 5 songs in 11 minutes, was intensely serious but also peppered with zany humour. I was absolutely mesmerized.

And invigorated.

And excited.

Not long after I picked up my first Ramones compilation, ‘Mania’, opening up my world to these ground-breaking musicians and punk icons. A 30-song blitz of the Ramones’ early catalogue, it was overwhelming to me; it took me years to truly appreciate them. But I eventually did.

I’ve since picked up most of their albums, boxed sets, DVDs, …etc. And the covers. And spin-offs. Almost anything related.

I’m a devoted fan now.

‘Rock ‘n’ Rock High School’ I understood right away. The moment I got the chance, I picked up the film on VHS and played that tape to death. When it was released on DVD, I special ordered it from the U.S. because it couldn’t be found in my area. That was also played to death.

‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’ is a low budget 1979 teen sex comedy that follows Riff Randall and her friends as she tries to get concert tickets to the upcoming Ramones concert in her town. A die-hard fan, she intends to meet them and slip them a copy of the music she’s written for them.

Meanwhile, her best friend Kate is trying to catch the eye of Tom Roberts, their school’s star quarterback. But he has his eye on Riff, who wouldn’t give him the time of day. So they both employ the school’s “Mr. Fix-it”, and matchmaker extraordinaire, Eaglebauer, to get their catch.

But Riff, Kate and Tom are all facing tremendous odds: Vince Lombardi High has a new principal, Ms. Togar and, facing the school’s growing disrepute, is planning to crack down on all student shenanigans. With the help of her thuggish Hall Monitors, she plans to clean the place up.

The picture is a super corny slice of teenage heaven, spoofing all the clichés of teen comedies. It’s filled with stereotypes, but it spins them in such a way that they become a mockery, such as the fact that Tom is both a jock and socially inept and bookish or that the gym teacher is a butchy woman.

That their hero is a young woman is also out of the ordinary – and more so the fact that she’s a rebellious rocker – a role usually played by males up until that point (and predominantly so even now). That she has a crush on the Ramones, who were anything but poster boys, is jaw-dropping.

Sh really was a one of a kind!

What’s fascinating is that the picture wasn’t even intended to be a Ramones vehicle: the film was first supposed to be ‘Disco High’, then it was eventually changed from disco to rock and Todd Rundgren, Cheap Trick and Van Halen were considered before the filmmakers settled on the Ramones.

And yet ‘RnRHS’ exudes the Ramones’ ethos of rebellion with an innocent charm. It would be impossible to imagine this film with anyone else in it, and the result would likely have been a disaster – case-in-point, the fact that, despite all the artists on the soundtrack, their music stands out the most.

The Ramones own this movie. It was a perfect fit.

And yet, strangely enough, the soundtrack album is mostly filled with the other artists: the Ramones don’t even show up on the second side of the LP, with Devo, Chuck Berry, Todd Rundgren and Alice Cooper taking their place instead. It’s a wonder what the producers were thinking.

They likely shored up their bets in doing so, hoping to get a bigger cross-section of the music-loving public on board. It’s a good thing that you could still do that in the ’70s, when music licensing fees were far cheaper; these days, one song might cost as much as the whole movie did then.

That was the same problem that ‘Blues Brothers 2000’ faced two decades after the original picture: they simply couldn’t afford the music anymore; since 1980, costs had gone through the roof. And ‘RnRHS’ has not only Cooper and Berry, but Paul McCartney, Brian Eno and Fleetwood Mac!

You couldn’t make this movie for cheap these days. (It might explain why Howard Stern’s intention of remaking it has bore no fruit years after his intentions were made known)

The picture was made on peanuts (producer Roger Corman is infamous for cutting corners) and it shows; it’s what one would graciously call “sloppy but fun”. The production budget was so cheap that star P.J. Soles reportedly ended up spending her salary on her wardrobe for the picture.

And she pretty much wears the same thing throughout!

The film does benefit from a few coups, however, starting with getting the Ramones for 25 grand, and landing a high school scheduled for demolition as their main set. This permitted them to run rampant with the picture and to take advantage of the school’s destruction for its explosive finale.

This was the setting for a raucous confrontation between the students and their parents, school officials and the police, which finds the rebellious teenagers (aided by the rock and roll cool of the Ramones) taking over the school, partying and rampaging their way through the halls.

It’s pure teenage daydream.

It’s also the setting for the opening sequence which, after a short introduction to the grounds and the student body, finds Riff turning the schoolyard into a chaotic dance party by popping in a tape of the Ramones – after announcing to the world, on the loudspeaker, “This is rock and rock high school”.

Is it ever. From that moment on, the picture just doesn’t relent, zipping by with corny gags and zingers, never taking itself (or its audience) too seriously, and relishing every moment of it. It’s basically a smorgasborg of silliness, teenage rebellion and rock and roll. It’s young, dumb and full of fun.

Ahem.

Some of my favourite moments, besides the opening introduction, include:

  • Seeing the nerd popping up in lockers, wall displays, file cabinets, …etc. It takes the stereotype to the Nth level, spoofing it in the process – something I like.
  • The scene when Tommy goes to the guys’ smoked out bathroom, where all the guys congregate, to the tune of Brownsville Station’s “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room”: A bunch of guys are lined up to see Eaglebauer, who has a secretary managing the line-up from her desk. His office is in one of the stalls and his consultation with Tommy takes on the allure of a game show. Hilarious absurd.
  • Riff takes a 3-day leave to line up to get concert tickets for her and all her friends (apparently it was possible for a single person to buy 100 tickets at 10$ a piece. Plus which she had the cash! Ha!). She brings a standee of the band, a lawn chair, and sets up at the front of the line. She even has milk delivered to her in the morning. Nice.
  • The Ramones come to the concert hall driving up in a convertible pink Cadillac, to the tune of  “I Just Want to Have Something to Do”, all playing instruments with the top down. It’s a triumphant, rock and roll introduction to the band, and the ticket buyers in the line-up go nuts. It’s wicked fun.
  • I adore the utter nonsense of having Riff’s friend Kate bring notes to Ms. Togar to explain her absence while she’s waiting in line – especially given their dubious content and the reaction the provoke: Day 1: her dad died. Day 2: her mom died. Day 3: her goldfish died. It’s so silly, and all done with nearly a straight face, which is even better.
  • Kate goes to see Eaglebauer in the boys’ bathroom because she wants to be set up with Tom. Naturally all the boys hanging about find ways to avert their eyes and then the usual consultation begins. This leads to the Eaglebauer bringing the pair to Lovers’ Lane for the pair to practice together, in the hope of getting Tom to see the light. It’s an extremely corny scene, but watching them fail at the obvious is a total delight.
  • Ms. Togar discusses the impact of rock music on malleable teenage minds with a few teachers. It’s silly to start with, but she then supports her arguments by presenting the Rock-o-meter, which lists the intensity of the following groups, in ascending order:

    Muzak
    Pat Boone
    Debbie Boone
    Donny and Marie
    Kansas
    Peter Frampton
    Foreigner
    Jethro Tull
    Led Zeppelin
    Ted Nugent
    Rolling Stones
    The Who
    Ramones

    Interesting list, even if it’s not entirely accurate, and I have a good laugh every time I see it.

  • The concert footage is a favourite, obviously (duh!). It only begins an hour in, but it’s a full 11 minutes of footage (with other stuff cut in), unlike other rock movies. They reportedly shot all day, over and over, to get all the footage needed. It’s genius. It’s vibrant. It’s funny. They even spruced it up with on-screen lyrics for “Teenage Lobotomy”, brought in the “Pinhead” mascot, did super close-ups of Joey at a wonky angle, and spelled out “D-M-U-B” (sic) during the song’s chorus. They basically spelled F-U-N with this tongue-in-cheek segment.
  • When Ms. Togar organizes a record burning at the school (which inevitably starts a riot to the Alice Cooper tune “School’s Out”). The Ramones crash the party only to get a disgusted response from Togar:  “Do your parents know you’re Ramones?”. Ha!
  • The siege with the students partying inside, with the Ramones and destroying school records while the parents and police wait outside, is pure release. By the time they come out and the Ramones play the theme song we’re there with them cheering.

I even like the musical numbers, as girly as they are: the one where Riff plays and sings her Ramones demo in the gym is fun because of all the girl in short shorts, and the one in Riff’s bedroom where she’s daydreaming of the Ramones brings them into her room in a send-up of such montages.

Plus which Riff is in her underwear. Rowr.

Speaking of which, Riff Randall is without a doubt P.J. Soles’ best role – and she’s been in the iconic ‘Carrie‘ and ‘Halloween‘ films. For me, she holds it together; without her zest, this picture would have fallen apart. Her Riff Randall is an energetic firecracker, and she’s hilarious.

The rest of the cast is eager and quite good, but not nearly as notable. The best of the lot are Corman staples Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov, as Mr. McGee and Ms. Togar. Bartel is a gas as always and Woronov authoritatively chews up the scenery. She’s brilliant in the part.

And then there are the ladies. Oh sure, it’s the ’70s, but pretty ladies are pretty ladies, irrespective of the garb and the ‘do. There are a number of hotties in this one, notably some of Riff’s friends, and Lynn Farrell as Angel Dust, the super groupie who follows the Ramones around. Yum.

Granted, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’ doesn’t always make much sense; plot-wise, there are tons of inconsistencies. But who cares? That’s really beside the point, isn’t it? The picture’s intention is simply to have a silly old time, backed by some fine rock and roll. And it delivers exactly that.

This picture is not intended to be a masterpiece and, on the budget (an estimated $300,000) that the filmmakers had to make it, it never could have been anyway. What it does well is to tap into and channel the spirit of youth and manage to send it up both at the same time. Pretty impressive.

This is absolutely in keeping with the Ramones’ ethos, and by this virtue ‘Rock and Roll high School’ is a perfect tribute to them. It deserves to be in any self-respecting Ramones fans’ collection. And anyone who has not seen it but is intrigued by the band should. It’s a gem like none other.

There was only one Ramones (R.I.P.). And there is only one ‘Rock and Roll High School’.

Date of viewing: July 12, 2015

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