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Rock 'n' Roll High School
cast: P.J. Soles, Clint Howard, Mary Woronov, and the Ramones

director: Allan Arkush

94 minutes (15) 1978
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
4 Digital DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jim Steel
For many of us, the Ramones were our Beatles. Arguably they've had an even bigger influence. Hell, I'll argue it with anyone - right now! We can also compare what they've both got in common. For a start, it's only the drummers and the guy who replaced the original bass player who are still left standing, and neither group were quite the same after Phil Spector got his hands on them. They both also made cheesy, cash-in teenage movies. Which brings us to Rock 'n' Roll High School.

This was one of Roger Corman's shoestring budget quickies for his New World Studios. Corman's original plan, pretty much adhered to here, was to make a musical in which the kids take over and blow up their school. It was to be called 'Disco High School'. In some alternative universe, people are swapping copies of this train-wreck and wondering where it all went wrong for the genius that made all those Edgar Allen Poe movies. In our universe, luckily for us, director Allan Arkush convinced Corman that you couldn't start a revolution with disco; it just had to be rock 'n' roll. Warner Bros allowed them to pilfer their catalogue for the soundtrack - the soundtrack album is very highly recommended, by the way - and they also offered them several options for the band. Cheap Trick and Van Halen were mooted at one stage. So were Devo, who did make it onto the soundtrack but were considered just too weird. Eventually they settled on the Ramones. The Ramones' ability to deliver (or even remember) any lines was so appallingly awful that it comes across as charming. Joey suffered from OCD; Marky, now a teetotaller was permanently drunk; Dee Dee, twitching like a loon throughout, was obviously wired to the gills; and Johnny was just plain, old-fashioned wooden. Luckily, their musical performances are from another planet.

The plot, for what it is, is a basic pastiche of 1950s and 1960s teenage movies. Riff Randell (played with zest by the astounding P.J. Soles) is a student at Vince Lombardi High School. Her best friend is weedy Kate (Del Young). Kate is in love with squeaky-clean wimp Tom (Vincent Van Patten). Unfortunately for Kate, Tom is in love with Riff. Unfortunately for Tom, Riff is in love with Joey Ramone. Riff's written a song for the Ramones called Rock 'n' Roll High School and she's convinced that if she can get tickets to their show when they come to town, she can get the song to them. This involves standing in line at the ticket office for three solid days. However, the school board, in desperation, has just appointed a new principal, the fascistic Miss Togar (a perfect Mary Woronov). She is quite fond of staging record burnings, and Riff is her nemesis. A few other noteworthy characters appear. Paul Bartel is Mr McGree, the nice teacher. He's certainly not cool, but he's wonderfully open-minded about punk rock. And there's Eaglebauer, the school fixer, who has an office in the school toilets and can arrange anything (except tickets for the Ramones or there'd be no plot. Hang on - his office is in the boys' toilets. It all makes sense now. No, wait a minute...). In a truly remarkable twist of fate, Eaglebauer is played by Clint Howard, real-life brother to the Fonz's straight-man, Ron. It's pretty fair to say that you won't confuse Eaglebaur and the Fonz, though. There's also a six-foot high white mouse.

When the Ramones eventually appear at the theatre, they do it in style, arriving in an open-top car and playing one of their most cynical numbers. They then get out of the car and enter the theatre through the throng of screaming kids, still playing the song. It is truly a sight to behold. There's another great set piece where Riff smokes a joint in her bedroom and imagines the band playing a ballad for her. Joey deserves an Oscar just for the way that he gets out of the chair. There's also an electrifying concert where they belt through five songs (in only ten minutes) and the cast proceed to chase each other through the corridors. And they show up for the iconoclastic climax when the kids take over the school and drive Miss Togar and her henchmen out of the building.

The film's far from perfect, though. There are plenty of times when the gags fall flat, and the film does look rushed and cheap in places. Arkush collapsed with exhaustion trying to get it finished and Joe Dante had to step in for the last day, for example, and although Dante did a great job of his bit, it serves as an example of the way it was put together. Many of its strong points are probably accidental in origin, but that hardly matters. It's enormous fun. The official Ramones documentary, End Of The Century, manages to be both hilarious and bleak at the same time, but it is probably the only rock 'n' roll film that would inspire the viewer to go out and get a job in a factory afterwards. One feels that they would much rather be remembered for Rock 'n' Roll High School.

It's been out on DVD before, and this release drops the optional commentary that accompanied the first release. It retains the original trailer, and the (audio) radio ads and (audio) original concert soundtrack, and it adds a five minute Roger Corman interview and a 24-minute retrospective consisting of interviews with Alan Arkush, Mary Woronov, Marky Ramone, Clint Howard, and several others, all of whom seem to look back on the film with fondness. But P.J. Soles - where are you now?

What? You still think I was stretching things with the Beatles comparison? Paul McCartney And Wings are the first thing you hear at the start of the film. It all ties together.
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