Rock and Roll High School (1979)

One kind of cool thing about living in this city, is that you never know who’s going to turn up. I missed Nicholas Meyer (writer/director two of the better Star Trek movies, Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country, and one of my personal favorites, Invasion of the Bee Girls) when he made an appearance at a showing of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (which he wrote the novel and adapted the screenplay for), last week we saw the Phantasm gang, and next week we have to choose between a double-feature of the original Nightmare on Elm Street and Texas Chainsaw Massacre or a trip into Beverly Hills to see The Omen where Richard Donner (Superman (1978)The Goonies (1985)) will do a Q&A.

We don’t usually do the Q&As because I’m a res ipsa loquitur kind of guy. But the Phatasm/RaVager one was fun. And at the end of this showing of Rock and Roll High School Mary Woronov showed up with her dog to do a little quickie Q&A. Woronov is a cult icon who hung around with Andy Warhol and did his “films” but who also went on to an extensive career in a wide variety of mainstream and low budget/indie flicks. And, honestly, she shines in this film as she did in the Q&A, in that eminently unselfconsciously egotistical way the best crowd-handlers have. (It’s logical, really: You have to be pretty convinced that you’re worthy of people’s attention to be able to sell people on being worthy of their attention.)

Very mixed.
One wonders if Arkush had a teacher named “Togar” he had mixed feelings about.

Anyway, this is a late era Roger Corman cheapie, when he would throw Allan Arkush, Joe Dante, Paul Bartel a couple hundred grand and give ’em 30 days to make a film. Corman made his own way with this approach back in the ’50s creating such cult classics as Little Shop of Horrors, Bucket of Blood and also some less classic films like Creature from the Haunted Sea, and in the ’70s these guys would manage to turn out a number of still watchable films like Hollywood Boulevard, Pirahna, Death Race 2000, Cannonball and of course this film.

The basic premise—this was in the days when Corman’s New World Pictures was the “high concept” king—is that a delinquent, rebellious teenage girl (P.J. Soles) defies the authority of her Ilsa-esque principal (Woronov) in order to get tickets to see her favorite band, The Ramones. I’ve seen people claim that this was a big deal in making the Ramones a household name and also revering the film as a punk rock treasure. To the former, I can only say that they had several hits before the movie came out. To the latter, I can only say that this is mere coincidence: The movie went through several iterations with bands who were not punk, and was (I think) at one point called Heavy Metal High.

They were doing Phantom of the Park by this time.
Kiss was too big metaphorically (if not literally) to fit in P.J. Soles bathroom.

Nonetheless, there are several full-length Ramones songs padding out the meager story which, even with subplots and fake concert footage (they sold tickets to a fake Ramones concert and locked people in the auditorium to get their crowd footage) comes in at right around 90 minutes, and the Ramones even have a few lines at the end.

I think this will be the third time I’ve used this word for a late ’70s movie recently, but it’s actually kind of quaint. Riff (P.J. Soles) is obsessed but she’s never mean. A subplot has her pal Kate (Dey Young, looking lovely) trying to hook up with quarterback Tom (Vincent Van Patten, who seems to be back acting these days, after a 15 year hiatus), so she goes to the High School “fixer” Eaglebauer (Clint Howard, looking middle-aged), but Tom’s already gone to Eaglebauer because he’s only got eyes for Riff. It all works out, though, with virtually no drama whatsoever. Heh.

Low budget movies are entirely different from big budget movies.
Not realizing chicks go for the older guys, Patten (21) and Howard (19) plan to romance Soles (29) and Dey (24).

I’d call the movie “camp” but that doesn’t really do it justice. It’s more whimsical, where they just ran with whatever idea they had and took it to the extreme. This makes it pretty funny in kind of surprising ways. Eaglebauer has his “office” in the bathroom, like The Fonz (and it was cliché when the Fonz did it), except that Eaglebauer’s office really is an office. He’s got a desk, calendar, filing cabinets: It’s literally an office.

There’s a great bit about the effect of rock-and-roll on mice, which quickly goes into the silly, then gradually goes into full-blown over the top mode, with the future Oscar-winning Rob Bottin (who would shortly go on to do the stellar makeup effects in Joe Dante’s The Howling and John Carpenter’s The Thing) running around in a costume, as a (literal) mouse who loves The Ramones. Every shortcoming in teen movies, especially low-budget teen movies, is essentially lampshaded and turned to 11. There was a strong interest here in not being boring, and we laughed pretty much through the whole thing. The music, perhaps ironically, perhaps not, was where the movie actually sort of stopped.

Punk or no, the music sounds to today’s kids’ ears as fairly quaint. Well, to my ears, and to The Boy and The Flower, who both really enjoyed this even though neither loves the music. (The Boy in particular has very narrow tastes, musically. The Flower recognized The Ramones cover of California Sun, I think.) It’s hard to imagine a better fit than the Ramones for the film, though, because the film-making crew’s attitude and this particular film’s attitude is very punk.

I'll bet they only needed a small bribe to shoot this. Today, it'd cost a fortune.
I’m sure this was 100% safe.

A literal demolition underscores the climactic scene. It was done close enough to the actors and crew that some of them walked off and wouldn’t come back. That’s pretty punk.

P.J. Soles was pushing 30 at the time this was made, about the same age as the Ramones and only five years younger than Woronov. (Occasionally it shows up, in that Woronov, despite the severe bun and bulky clothes, is still a beautiful woman). Ironically, it’s the balding Clint Howard, at 19, who’s the youngest of the main cast. The late Paul Bartel has one of the big adult roles, and if you look carefully you can catch Arkush and Dante in scenes as well. Dick Miller, who may have been in every single Roger Corman produced film since Bucket of Blood, has a nice little bit as an abusive cop. Woronov towers over him.

As I said, we enjoyed it, and we enjoyed the little chat with Woronov who I thought maybe was just there to pimp a book, but I think maybe was just there because she likes the limelight. It definitely clicked the coolness of the affair up several notches, but even if you can’t get her to appear in your theater, this is a fun watch, doubly so if you like the Ramones.

Probably studying the SAG bylaws to find out how many they've broken by being in this.
Like Riff. She likes the Ramones. You can tell ’cause she’s got posters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *