This week’s pick is the 1979 Roger Corman cult classic Rock ‘N’ Roll High School which features the legendary NYC punk rock band The Ramones in their first ever feature film. Corman alumni Allan Arkush who began his career with Roger Corman’s New World Pictures in the mid 1970s directed the film. Corman’s company helped launch numerous careers for many directors like Joe Dante, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovitch, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard and the Zucker brothers.
P.J. Soles stars as Riff Randall, a rebellious teenager who challenges the authority of Vince Lombardi High School’s newest principle, Evelyn Togar (Mary Woronov) who rules over the school with an overwhelming hatred of rock ‘n’ roll music and will stop at nothing to keep it from disrupting the students. When Riff learns that The Ramones are coming to town to play a concert, she plans to get backstage and deliver to Joey Ramone a song she wrote titled “Rock ‘N’ Roll High School”.
Soon after learning that many of the school’s students will be attending the concert, principal Togar confiscates Riff and her best friend Kate’s tickets thwarting any attempt Riff has at getting her song to The Ramones. At the same time, High school jock Tom Roberts (played by tennis player turned actor Vince Van Patten) hires the school’s business guru Eaglebauer (Clint Howard) to be his dating consultant in an attempt to get a date with Riff Randall.
The best and most famous part of the film occurs at the concert venue when The Ramones take stage to play. The shoot proved to be very rigorous for the cast and crew who had to shoot many different takes and bring in more extras to help fill the scene’s huge soundstage. According to the DVD commentary by Arkush, writer Richard Whitley and producer Michael Finnell, The Ramones refused to play certain songs and were unaccustomed to being actors. The Ramones had idolized the films made by The Beatles in the 1960s and were almost devastated to learn that The Beatles lip-synced the songs in their films. Arkush said that it was a process to get The Ramones to say their lines and hit their marks. The film also features a fantastic score from many popular bands of the time including DEVO, Fleetwood Mac, MC5, The Velvet Underground, Eddie and the Hotrods, Alice Cooper, Chuck Berry and of course The Ramones.
When Arkush and Joe Dante approached Roger Corman about a teenage genre film that was reminiscent of Corman’s films that were made in the 1950s & 60s, he gave them carte blanche to make a picture that represented the rock culture of the 1970s. Corman originally wanted to call the film “Disco High” but Arkush, Dante, Whitley and Finnell said that you couldn’t blow up a high school to a disco soundtrack. Arkush said in the DVD commentary that Corman’s only request was that they could put in some nude gymnastics if at all possible. The running commentary on the DVD is one of the funniest tracks of any cult film in my opinion and learning the back-story of the film with the filmmakers is wonderful and very hilarious.
My favorite part of the film is towards the end when principle Togar holds a record burning of the student’s vinyl records. The Ramones show up in their Cadillac convertible and join the students in their taking over of the school. Riff Randall proclaims The Ramones as honorary members of Rock ‘N’Roll High School and the band plays one of their songs called ‘Do You Wanna Dance”. The scene is wonderfully shot with the student body and music teacher turned rock n roll rebel Mr. McGree (a brilliant performance from the legendary Paul Bartel).
Rock ‘N’ Roll High School became a huge hit with audiences when it made its debut in theaters in August of 1979. The film helped to further establish The Ramones as one of the most beloved rock n roll bands of all time, and solidified Allan Arkush as a successful director who went on to have a very established career in film as well as in television as an executive producer on the hit NBC program Heroes.
Rock ‘N’ Roll High School is available on both DVD and Blu-Ray disc thru Shout! Factory Home Entertainment.