Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)

[13 March 2006]

By Scott Carlson

Do your parents know that you’re Ramones?
—Evelin Togar (Mary Woranov), Rock ‘n’ Roll High School

The above quotation—director Allan Arkush and the Ramones’ favorite from Rock ‘n’ Roll High School—is reasons one, two, three, and four why the movie is such fun to watch. It’s clear there isn’t much time left for Vince Lombardi High School (where “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”), freshly “appropriated” by its students, led by Riff Randell (P.J. Soles), the Ramones’ number one fan.

Before long, permanent records will be chain-sawed, white mice will explode from the deafening music, and the school itself will be blown to bits, the Ramones officiating as house band.

Goodbye, Vince Lombardi. Say hello to Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.

The movie was essentially a rip-off of Animal House (minus John Belushi), from plot to promo art. (Compare William Stout’s soundtrack album cover to the Nick Meyerowitz’s original Animal House poster.) In both, rebellious students and uptight teachers draw battle lines. All hell breaks loose.

Featuring a wonderful cast (including Clint Howard, Paul Bartel, and Vincent Van Patten) and great one-liners (Joey Ramone: “Things sure have changed since we got kicked out of high school”), Rock ‘n’ Roll High School eschews anything resembling “reality.” It’s no surprise that the second unit directors were Joe Dante (Gremlins) and Jerry Zucker (Airplane!). They devised for the film a cartoonish universe, where “normal life” ranges from the silly (a six-foot tall white mouse attending concerts, wearing ear plugs, of course) to the completely absurd (Joey Ramone as a heartthrob).

In fact, the film makes sense of Joey, whose Swizzlestick physique, bizarre looks, and odd demeanor made him rock’s anti-frontman, as well as the perfect heartthrob for a deranged teen comedy. If Riff was swooning over the average looks of David Lee Roth or Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander (both were briefly considered), would the movie have been entertaining? Would anybody have remembered it?

Arkush and his cronies set out to make an anti-establishment comedy. Roger Corman’s production credit guaranteed a limited release, and videocassettes hadn’t yet revolutionized the industry. So, figuring their film wouldn’t be around long enough to cause trouble with real life’s PTAs and Principal Togars, Arkush created whatever chaos he wanted.

But Rock ‘n’ Roll High School survived, one of Hollywood’s happy accidents. Its weird-o (and sometimes lame-o) comedy, along with the accidental documentation of one of rock’s most legendary bands, helped the movie become a mainstay of cable TV, as well as three Special Edition DVD releases to date. Not bad for a $300,000 cheapie (“Minus the $20,000 that went to Roger’s storm windows,” says Arkush on the commentary track) that was green-lighted on the promise of nude gymnastics.

The latest DVD, dubbed the Rock On Edition, does little to build on the first version, released in 1997. That one featured audio commentary by Arkush, producer Michael Finnell, and co-writer Richard Whitley, as well as the audio from one of the unused Ramones concerts filmed for the movie. The subsequent releases, including this one, have featured those same extras layered with minor additions to accompany new packaging. The wealth of history (and anecdotes) in that original commentary is astounding. Arkush, Finnell, and Whitley have an almost encyclopedic account of everything about the movie, including its start as Arkush’s actual high school fantasy, featuring the Yardbirds.

The young filmmakers—who gained experience by working on other Corman productions, like Bartel’s Death Race 2000 and Dante’s Hollywood Boulevard—pitched the idea as Heavy Metal Kids (based on the Todd Rundgren song) in the early 1970s. Arkush says Corman was more interested in them making a nudie comedy called Girls Gym. When that fell through, Corman bought their idea, after being swayed by the grosses of Saturday Night Fever. Much to their shock, he retitled the movie Disco High.

“We had to explain to Roger that the Ramones were not an Italian disco band from New York City, and that it had to be called Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” Arkush says. “I said that disco is music of people with money, who took limos to discos, and rock and roll was about violence and rebellion. You couldn’t blow up a high school to disco music.” Arkush underscored his explanation with an imitation of Pete Townshend’s windmill and destruction of his guitar.

The highlights of the commentary are the stories involving the Ramones, from their astonishment at finding out the Beatles were lip-syncing in A Hard Day’s Night to Dee Dee’s terrible acting, which cut his six lines down to one (“Hey, Pizza! Great, let’s dig in!”). Other stories involve the legendary tightwad Corman, who, Arkush says, was sued by the Writers’ Guild twice for underpaying him.

The new extras on the Rock On Edition—including a second commentary by Corman and co-star Dey Young, and “Back to School,” a making-of featurette—seem like an attempt to justify a new DVD. Corman’s commentary lacks the liveliness of the original; his pedestrian chitchat reveals that he was primarily the movie’s check signer, and that Vince Lombardi High wasn’t the only place where the young people took control of the show.

While often rendered redundant by some of the stories told in the original commentary, “Back to School” does have a few new insights, focusing mainly on the band (Clint Howard: “God rest their souls, but Johnny and Joey could not act their way out of a paper bag”). The most important aspect, however, is that Marky Ramone participates in the interviews, making this the only release with participation from any members of the Ramones. True to form, Marky’s comments are a tad understated (“It was an honor, I guess, to be approached by Roger Corman”), but he’s certainly a welcome addition.

In the end, most of the extras deal with the memory of the Ramones, and rightly so. The popularity of “the bruddahs from Noo Yawk” has surged in the last 10 years, peaking with their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. As usual, it’s too late for the music industry to make up for ignoring Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee for 25 years (as prophesized by the Smiths’ “Paint a Vulgar Picture”). But any edition of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is a fitting tribute to guys who were proud enough of their only movie appearance to introduce the title song in concerts as being “from their hit film.”

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