Classic Corner: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School

Is there any band more perfectly aligned with Roger Corman’s sensibility than The Ramones? Staggering up from the primordial CBGB punk scene, the quartet bashed out a reputation on loud, fast songs that split the difference between the buzzsawing guitars of punk and the beach blanket-ready girl groups of lead singer Joey Ramone’s youth. The subject matter of the band’s lyrics—pinheads, shock treatment, lobotomies, the recreational uses of glue and cleaning products—could have been lifted from the more lurid American International features of the 1960s. 

As luck would have it, Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Marky crossed paths with Corman in the late 1970s. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School updates and satirizes mid-century juvenile delinquent movies for the punk era, pitting Ramones superfan Riff Randell against a strict new principal at her high school while trying to bring the music of her favorite band to her classmates. While the film was a modest critical and commercial success on its 1979 release, the slapsticky, slightly risque tone of the film and flawed female protagonist, combined with the Ramones’ cult following, have made this a cult classic at midnight screenings and slumber parties alike. 

Rock and roll rules at Vince Lombardi High School, but the students’ love of Marshall stacks and power chords have driven the administration insane. After the most recent principal is carted off in a straitjacket, the tyrannical Evelyn Togar (Mary Woronov) is installed in the position, and her first action on day one is to ban rock music on the Lombardi campus. Togar meets her match in Riff Randell (PJ Soles), an irreverent student and aspiring songwriter willing to flout the rules to get her original song “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” to her celebrity crush, Joey Ramone. 

For a film so in touch with the late 1970s iteration of the punk subculture, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School was in development for over half a century. If Wikipedia is to be believed, the original idea came from a story about a school walkout in the 1920s that writer Joseph McBride’s father organized. Corman used this as the basis for a 1970s update of his “wild teen” movies, one that placed popular music at the center of the narrative. The script went through several revisions that focused on the disco and heavy metal subgenres, and once the production team landed on the title Rock ‘n Roll High School, both Cheap Trick and Todd Rundgren passed on the script. According to director Allan Arkush, the Ramones got the nod after he showed Corman the Mutant Monster Beach Party fumetti from Punk magazine. 

It seems appropriate that a comic book written in a campy, self-aware style would inspire one major aspect of the film. Even before the Ramones appear on screen, the film has the look of a 1950s comic book or an issue of Mad magazine. Arkush and cinematographer Dean Cundey used a bright primary-colored palette for the costumes and production design, and the low-angled shots in the opening scenes have a geometric quality that reminded me of frames from the 1960s run of The Amazing Spider-Man. The bold visual style made some of the more surreal elements, like Clint Howard’s role as a sleazy bookie with office space in the handicapped stall of the boys’ room, more plausible. 

While the film has a gleefully surreal style, the heart of the story belongs to Riff Randell. Arkush and co-story writer Joe Dante conceived of the character as a suburban cheerleader who “heard this music (and) said, ‘Wait a minute. That’s how I feel. That’s me,’” Arkush told LA Magazine, adding, “the Ramones could not be further from who she is.” As played by PJ Soles, a character actress with notable appearances in Carrie and Halloween, Riff is a determined songwriter with a healthy distaste for authority and an obsessive crush on Joey Ramone. While some of the things she does, like pretend to feed pizza to a cardboard cutout of Joey, comes off as a bit cringe, she’s allowed to be as weird and silly as her male counterparts in other Corman movies. Soles’s affection for Riff, combined with the actress’s crack comic timing, made the pun-heavy dialogue genuinely funny instead of merely groan-inducing. 

Calling Rock ‘n’ Roll High School feminist would be a bit of a stretch, if only because of the story arc involving groupie Angel Dust, but having a female protagonist with talent and a point of view might have opened up the film to an untapped demographic. The photo of Soles in pigtails and Chuck Taylors on the VHS box gave the film an innocuous look perfect for 1980s slumber parties, and there’s a clear line from Riff Randell’s songwriting ambitions to the steely-eyed machinations of Corinne Burns in Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains and the diaristic vulnerability of the punk trio at the heart of We Are the Best!

Last month, Roger Corman joined all four original Ramones at the CBGB in the sky. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School shows both band and filmmaker at the height of their powers and serves as a fitting memorial to two sets of 20th century cultural icons. 

“Rock n Roll High School” is streaming on Amazon Prime, Peacock, Kanopy, Hoopla, Night Flight Plus, and several ad-supported services.

Chelsea Spear is returning to arts writing after spending a few years correcting other people’s grammar. Her byline has appeared at the Brattle Theatre’s Film Notes blog and in the pages of The Gay & Lesbian Review. She lives in Boston.

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