Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

RECENT WATCHES: Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979)

The origin story behind “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” is pretty well known, I think, among cult movie fans. Near the end of the seventies, Roger Corman had the idea to resurrect the high school-set teensploitation flicks he made early in his career at AIP. Initially, he wanted to make a film call “Disco High,” as that was the fad at the time. The “Hollywood Boulevard” team of Allan Arkush and Joe Dante suggested to their boss that you can’t blow up a high school to disco, prompting the title change to “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.” Arkush would end up directing, with Dante shooting uncredited for a few days when Alan got sick. Artists as divergent as Cheap Trick, Todd Ruddgren, Devo, and Van Halen were considered as the band the story revolves around. However, the film found the perfect pairing for its absurdist, anarchic spirit with the Ramones. The resulting movie would become a punk rock cult classic and remains a personal fave.

The teens of Vince Lombardi High are so chaotic that they drove their last principal insane. The tyrannical Principal Togar steps up, looking to impose her iron fist rule on the rowdy teenagers. Her primary adversary soon appears in the form of Riff Randell. The school’s number one rebel, Riff is obsessed with punk pioneers the Ramones. When the band arrives in the near-by town, Riff becomes determined to meet her heroes and give them her original songs. When Togar confiscates her tickets, Riff makes it to the show anyway. Soon, the rivalry between lame authority and chaotic rock youth comes to a head.

“Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” does not take place in our world. Instead, the film exaggerated the facts of high school until it becomes a live action cartoon. The square jocks become the squarest jocks imaginable. Nerds are stuffed in increasingly smaller lockers. This is a movie where rock music has the power to change the physical properties of things, shattering windows and exploding mice. The Ramones’ riotous rock can morph a stuffy music teacher into a middle-age punk. In the film’s world, it’s possible for a full hooka and the school’s matchmaker’s office to appear inside the boys’ bathroom. Paper airplanes can sail across the entire campus. A warlock-painted shaggin’ wagon can contain a cavernous den of teenage sin. Within this setting, the daily struggles between rebellious teens and stuck-up adults becomes a cartoonish rivalry of explosive proportions.

This ludicrous world allows Arkush and his team to create a number of inspired comedic gags. “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” is, after all, the kind of movie that randomly introduces human-sized mice halfway through and then, fully committing to the gag, makes them reoccurring characters. The subplot involving the school matchmaker involves an increasingly surreal set of gags, including instructions on making out conveyed in particular ways. The Ramones controlling manager feeds them on a diet of vitamins and wheatgrass. Much like later New Worlds teen classic “Heathers,” this fully artificial world allows for eccentric dialogue that’s almost poetic. “You can put it where the monkey puts the nut,” “Things sure have changed since we got kicked out of high school,” and “Do your parents know that you’re Ramones?” are just a few choice examples.

Arkush let’s the joyfully youthful energy of the soundtrack direct the entire film. In many ways, “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” is a punk rock riff on a classic musical. You can see this in the way a disorganized gym class launches into a fully choreographed dance routine. Or how the Ramones’ arrival at the venue launches into a spirited performance of “I Just Want to Have Something to Do.” My favorite fantastical musical sequence is Riff imaging Joey Ramones serenading her in her bedroom, to the plaintively boyish chords of “I Want You Around.” Arkush pairs these imaginative scenes with more straight-forward numbers, like a lengthy Ramones concert inserted into the middle of the film. Even this is energetically directed, with quick-cutting editing or the camera being attached directly to Joey’s mic-stand.

Perfectly attuned to the movie’s rebellious heart is P.J. Soles as Riff Randell. Nearly 30 at the time of filming but totally believable as a teenager, Soles’ limitless energy is ideal for the role. She begins the movie leaping and dancing, two things she continues to do throughout the film. Riff Randell's enthusiasm never wavers, even when she has to describe Joey Ramone – generally regarded as one of rock history's ugliest front man – as a heartthrob. Due to the film's low budget, Soles picked out her own wardrobe, which is also pretty damn amazing and eclectic. Soles is utterly delightful in the role, hilarious, adorable, bubbly.

Soles is accompanied by an utterly game supporting cast. The best of which is Mary Woronov as Miss Togar. Woronov is fantastically deadpan in the part, commenting dryly after a mouse explodes or in any of her confrontations with Riff. Clint Howard, that oddball cult performer, is also quite funny as Eaglebaucer, the school matchmaker that leaps through all sorts of amusingly sleazy loops. Also funny is that the Ramones themselves are terrible actors. They stiffly recite their dialogue, all of them obviously uncomfortable acting. (Though they have no problem performing their songs.) Just to confirm that this is a New World productions, Paul Bartel, Dick Miller, and the Real Don Steele have small supporting roles.

And, of course, the soundtrack is excellent. Aside from containing most of the Ramones' big hits, you can also hear Brian Eno, Devo, Nick Lowe, and the one Alice Cooper song you'd absolutely expect. You can attribute “Rock 'n' Roll High School's” initial cult following to fans of the Ramones and the other featured bands. However, I think the film's enduring popularity has more to do with its wonderful performances and hilarious streak of absurdist humor. That following would lead to an instantly forgotten sequel in 1991, “Rock 'n' Roll High School Forever,” which subbed in Corey Feldman for the Ramones. There was even rumblings once of a remake, with Alex Winter behind the camera, that never came to fruition. It's all for naught because it's unlikely another film could capture the joy unique to “Rock 'n' Roll High School.” [9/10]

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