Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)
Back of the box...
“Vince Lombardi High School has quite a reputation: it’s the wildest, most rockin’ high school around! That is, until a thug of a principal, Miss Togar, comes along and tries to make the school a totalitarian state. With the help of the Ramones, the students of Vince Lombardi battles Miss Togar’s iron-fisted rule and take their battle to a truly rockin’ conclusion!”
Director: Allan Arkush
Starring: P.J. Soles, Mary Woronov, Clint Howard, The Ramones
Watch the Trailer
3 November 2016
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School
Science whiz Kate Rambeau twists two wires together and suddenly Vince Lombardi High erupts in wild dancing as “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” roars through the P.A. system. The Ramones #1 fan dances on a table, unaware as the school’s new rock ‘n’ roll hating tyrant principal, Miss Togar, storms up behind her to shut it down. “And who are you?” Miss Togar demands. The leather pant wearing teen puts out her hand and replies, “I’m Riff Randell, rock ‘n’ roller.” We’re not even ten minutes into Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and we’ve already established just about everything we’ll need to know for the rest of the film, leaving plenty of time for light-hearted humor and great music. To get in the high school spirit, we’ve written our review as an argumentative essay and here comes the thesis statement! Although some might whine on Rotten Tomatoes that the humor is too corny and the film lacks plot, 1979’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is a masterpiece of cult cinema due to its near-perfect casting, relentless wit, passionate crew, and of course The Ramones!
It’s rare that a movie can claim our favorite performances by multiple actors but due to great casting and a fun, positive atmosphere on set, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School manages to pull it off. Our hero, Riff Randell, is played by P.J. Soles who, after some stiff competition from Rosanna Arquette, won the role when director Allan Arkush caught an advanced screening of John Carpenter’s Halloween. Producer Roger Corman is well known for being cheap and in order to afford Soles, she had to provide her own wardrobe, which may have been to the films detriment. While Riff is at odds with her new principal Miss Togar, played by the always amazing Mary Woronov in possibly our favorite role, her best friend Kate Rambeau (Dey Young) seeks the help of Eaglebauer—a men’s room entrepreneur played by Clint Howard—to win the affection of quarterback Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten). Howard’s performance as Eaglebauer is one of our favorite roles of his career—yes we’ve seen Ice Cream Man—and one he refers to as “foreshadowing of future Clint Howard quirky character roles.” Making Rock ‘n’ Roll High School was such a memorable experience for him that he still has his lines memorized! Howard believes this is because as a child actor he often had a parent with him on set and with Rock ‘n’ Roll High School being one of his first solo gigs he wanted to prove that he could do a good job on his own. Well, great work Clint, we think you nailed it.
Some might complain that Rock ‘n’ Roll High School isn’t funny but we say it’s better than funny, it’s relentlessly witty and clever. For a movie whose popularity seems to rest so heavily on the Ramones being in it, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School has so much more to offer. Of course the Ramones are great, their acting is amazingly terrible, and their live footage is awesome, but it’s really the constant humor that carries the film. Arkush crammed so many jokes into every scene that if you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss ‘em. Mary Woronov’s performance as the stern, desperately needing to get laid, Miss Togar is never not funny. Other standouts include Miss Togar’s bumbling hall monitors, Clint Howard as Eaglebauer, and Paul Bartel as music teacher Mr. McGree—or as Joey Ramone calls him, Mr. McGloop.
In the world of assembly line cookie-cutter soft reboots it’s almost hard to imagine a time when a movie would be made by people who were passionate about making it. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School was inspired by a classroom daydream of director Allan Arkush where The Yardbirds would show up, play a concert, and then blow up the school. Reflecting on those childhood dreams, Arkush conceived the story with Joe Dante (Gremlins, The Howling, The ‘Burbs) while they were working together editing trailers for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. Roger Corman liked the idea but insisted it be titled Disco High. The disco title was dutifully included on every copy of the screenplay shared with Corman while switching it to Rock ‘n’ Roll High School while shopping it to bands. Eventually Arkush convinced Corman to change it to rock ‘n’ roll because, as he put it, you can’t blow up a high school to disco, it has to be a style of music with inherent violence. To help his argument, Arkush went to an Elvis Costello concert at Hollywood High with his camera, bringing back proof that the kids didn’t want disco. After making the official switch from disco to rock, Arkush met with Warner Bros. who initially recommended Devo or Van Halen for the role. Eventually, The Ramones came up and Arkush, having lived in New York and done lighting at the Fillmore East, was a huge fan of the band and knew that was who he wanted. The Ramones had turned down previous offers to be in films but agreed to do Rock ‘n’ Roll High School because they were fans of Roger Corman. Johnny Ramone, who was an avid VHS collector back when few people even owned VCRs was quoted as saying about Roger Corman, “I like his movies; they gotta lot of violence and action.” After securing the Ramones for the film, Arkush invited them to his home where they bonded over the main inspiration for Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (as well as Arkush’s career), the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. The Ramones couldn’t believe that the Beatles would lipsync and it took some convincing from Arkush before they would accept that they’d have to do it for the film.
We’ll argue that the film’s humor is what makes it great but since we’re here at our last point, let’s talk about how awesome the Ramones are in the movie. With the exception of Allan Arkush and Mary Woronov, who was a dancer with The Velvet Underground for Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable performances, most of the cast weren’t familiar with the Ramones and, upon hearing them, were not fans. Sadly, P.J. Soles, Riff Randell herself, was in a panic before shooting the film, dreading having to be the #1 fan of a band she disliked so much. Soles would later come around, and while admitting her initial distaste, claims to now be a huge fan. Despite the cast not having good taste in music they all speak highly of The Ramones themselves, although nobody has much to say about Dee Dee who was rumored to have been strung out during filming. When asked about working with the Ramones, Paul Bartel said it was “like a breath of fresh amyl nitrate.” The band were apparently very shy on set, often sitting by themselves on the floor in a corner, but Mary Woronov thought their presence was a welcome change from typical, predictable LA movie types. They were so bad at acting that most of their lines had to be cut and though they don’t talk much, they get a good amount of camera time and every scene with them is great. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School features a live performance at The Roxy in LA where The Ramones perform “Blitzkrieg Bop, “Teenage Lobotomy,” “California Sun,” “Pinhead,” and “She’s The One.” Being professionally shot fairly early on in their career, it’s some of our favorite live footage of the band. Fun fact: during the show Darby Crash and Lorna Doom of The Germs can be seen in the front row of the crowd with Crash in a white jacket and Lorna Doom, with her bleached hair, to his left. The concert was open to the public and we like to think that Crash and Doom’s prominence in the crowd was intentional due to their scenes in the end of Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke having been cut. Up in Smoke was released in theaters two months before filming started on Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and we're sure the wounds were still fresh.
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is a cult masterpiece and an amazing look back at a hugely influential band before anyone knew the effect their music would have. The movie ends with a literally explosive rock ‘n’ roll show that is fitting as the film is up there with the best rock ‘n’ roll movies of all time. Clint Howard said it best, “Rock ‘n’ roll is rebellion with a smile on your face, and that’s what Allan delivered with Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.”
Rock 'n' Roll High School. Dir. Allan Arkush. Perf. P.J. Soles, Mary Woronov, Clint Howard, and The Ramones. New World Pictures, 2012. YouTube.