Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Music Month review: Rock 'N' Roll High School (1979)

I gotta say I usually hate musicals. Film characters breaking into song is one of my all-time turn offs. There are a couple of notable exceptions I’ll make to the rule though. David Bowie gets a pass for breaking into song in Labyrinth because… well… he’s David Bowie. But that's pretty much it. I bought Rock N Roll High School less because it was a musical and more because it’s one of the few 80s high school movies I haven’t seen (already pedants, it’s 1979 so it’s not technically 80s). I’m a huge fan of high school movies, particularly John Hughes ones so I thought this was worth a look.

The film sees PJ Soles play Riff Randell, a delinquent high schooler who is an obsessive Ramones fan. When she hears that they will be playing a concert nearby she decides to take several days off school queuing for tickets. However, this doesn’t go unnoticed by the new strict principal – Miss Togar – who makes it her mission to stop Randell from getting to the concert. Meanwhile, there’s a love triangle going on. High school jock Tom (Vincent Van Patten) is in love with Randell but she doesn’t reciprocate his feelings. And to make matters worse Randell’s best friend Kate (Dey Young) is actually in love with Tom. Will Randell get to the concert? Will Kate and Tom fall in love?

I had a few reservations before watching this. Firstly, the screenshots look pretty kitsch and I thought this might be quite dull and slow given its low budget (it's a Roger Corman production) but it was anything but. There’s a really crazy atmosphere to the whole film and though it’s got very, very little plot it’s got bags of energy and funny sequences. A lot of the surreal sequences seem highly influential on TV shows that came later like Parker Lewis Can't Lose. One of the best characters has to be Clint Howard, who plays Eaglebauer, a stranger ‘Godfather’-esque student who provides favours for other pupils from his office – located in a toilet stall! The part where he tries to teach Kate and Tom the basics of what to do at ‘make-out creek’ is superb.

I know the word madcap gets thrown around a lot but in this case, there isn’t a better word for the film. It’s a surreal, anarchical film and I guess that’s unsurprising once you take a close look at the people behind the scenes. Firstly, the film was co-written by Joe Dante and the Zucker brothers directed the key 'paper plane' sequence. That’s not to disparage the main credited director Alan Arkush (who also gets a co-writing credit), he does a great job. He keeps the film rolling at a wicked pace and though it’s not a non-stop laugh riot it’s consistently both surprising and amusing. Don’t hold the fact that he also directed Caddyshack II put you off watching this.

The cast all give good performances. PJ Soles and Dey Young particularly make a great double act. I thought it was quite a forward thinking for this type of film to have two female protagonists. You’d think a film about delinquent punk music fans would have two teenage boys in the lead – kudos to the makers for bucking the trend. One of the best actors in the film is Paul Bartel who plays the music teacher Mr McGree, I liked how easily he got made into a fan of the Ramones. Interestingly, he was also the director of Death Race 2000 and in fact, this film also stars another alumni of that film, Don Steele plays DJ Screamin' Steve Stevens.

The Ramones also obviously have an extended acting role in the film but thankfully they aren’t given much more than a handful of lines because none of them can really act. It's quite painful watching them try to speak their lines but thankfully they excel at the live songs.Okay, it's pretty clear the Ramones aren't singing or playing live but the amount of songs they squeeze into the film is great. I've never really been into them as a band but this film gave me a strong interest in seeking them out. There's some nice ways that they fit the songs in. For instance, at one point Randell sits in her bedroom and listens to the band on her headphones and suddenly the band appear in her room singing right at her.

All in all Rock N Roll High School was pleasant surprise. It's a really great little film and the perfect vehicle for The Ramones music. Interestingly, the film was originally planned as Disco High and they tried to sign up several other bands before settling on The Ramones! Anyway, if you haven't seen it, definitely check it out. This is one musical that doesn't suck!



  1. Somehow I've never seen Rock N Roll High School even though I'm a Ramones fan. I'll have to fix that sometime. A few years ago I remember hearing that Howard Stern was supposed to produce a remake but I guess it fell through by now. That is probably a good thing, I don't know who could replace the Ramones!

  2. Agree, this is great fun, what about that rabbit creature that is in the audience during one of the concerts? Thats so crazy! I highly recommend checking out The Ramones, they are a seminal Punk Rock band, if not the first one should ever listen to, they were part of what gave birth to Punk, plus their songs are simple, fun, and catchy as hell.

  3. Chris: You definitely need to see this if you're a fan. Yeah, I heard about the Stern remake - probably a good thing that died. Did you know they also made a non-Ramones sequel called Rock N Roll High School Forever with Corey Feldman?!!

    Franco: Yeah, their songs are insanely catchy. Will be picking up a CD or two for sure after this.