I was able to see a one night only 40th Anniversary screening of Rock And Roll High School at the amazing Carolina Theater in Durham as part of their revival programming. Wednesdays often mean Laura Boyes’ ‘Movie Diva’ series, featuring women as strong characters, and where we saw an amazing, restored in 4K Some Like It Hot the week before. Rock And Roll High School could fit in Movie Diva in in its own way: it features strong female characters (all too rare in rock stories) as their own agents for the action in the film. But the monthly series ‘Cinema Overdrive,’ which features cult and gonzo movies, brought us this gem. The trailers for the Overdrive series included lots of movies I have soundtracks to, like Breaking Glass, Times Square, and The Fabulous Stains.
So, Rock And Roll High School was released in 1979, it’s a teen (exploitation?) flick featuring The Ramones. The plot reminds me of when movies really were proudly, unabashedly dumb. The high schoolers at Vince Lombardi High are driving the principals to nervous breakdowns with their bad behavior. Enter Principal Togar, played with an evil kick by Mary Woronov, and her two young ‘Hall Monitor’ henchmen. They have to fight high schoolers rock rebel Riff Randell (P.J. Soles) and her genius oh-you’re-smoking-hot-when-you-take-off-your-glasses nerd pal Kate Rambeau (played by Dey Young). There’s a funny subplot in which Jock Tom Roberts (Vince Van Patten) needs help trying to get set up with Riff. Help comes from Eaglebauer Enterprises (Clint Howard)
Riff has written songs for her favorite band, The Ramones, and her crush is the adorable Joey Ramone (?!). If she can only get the songs to The Ramones, all will be perfect. So the movie turns upon The Ramones coming to town for a Big Show, where pretty much all the subplots meet up. I didn’t even mention the great comedic turn of Paul Bartel as Mr. McGree, the school’s music teacher, who goes from Mozart to hip-daddio Ramones devotee in one fell swoop, or the continuingly exploding white mice.
The Ramones are both a great choice and a weird one for this movie. Rock And Roll High School came from B-movie master Roger Corman. Corman’s studio was known as a creative cradle and RRHS was mostly directed by Allan Arkush (who went on to do Caddyshack II and Get Crazy! and a LOT of TV direction), but the story for the film changed many times, first known as Disco High and then Girl’s Gym. This was one of the cool facts ‘Cinema Overdrive’ curator Adam Hulin told us about this movie in the introduction. They had originally wanted Cheap Trick as the band, which would have been a very different movie experience, more heartthrob and Glam, less Punk and offbeat. At the time they were selected, The Ramones were NOT featured on mass market tees in every mall in the country as they are now. They were fairly obscure, underground, and very unlike the “popular” rock music of 1979. Making them the central dream figures of the movie was part of the joke. But thank goodness for that: The Ramones made the film timeless. I mean, it could have been Quarterflash or some other musical footnote of 1979.
The Ramones look great in the Ramones signature leather jackets, torn jeans, and print tees, and they do some minimal acting (“I like pizza!”). The true highlight of the movie is the footage of the band onstage in their prime. All young and very much alive, they tear through the short set in the movie; the cinematography is excellent. Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Marky of course absolutely kill it in the faster-than-you-can-believe live pace. This was the same band the first time I saw them (see our podcast SGS tinyurl.com/zubheyho for more) and that was an mouth-dropping experience.
Oh, and Riff gets her songs to The Ramones, who play ‘Rock And Roll High School’ the next day at VLHS: the kids go crazy for the band and song, have a full-on dance riot, take over the school, and then blow it up, thanks to Kate’s chemistry acumen. D-U-M-B everyone’s accusing me. It was great!