CAPSULE: ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979)

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DIRECTED BY: Allan Arkush

FEATURING: P. J. Soles, Dey Young, Vincent Van Patten, Clint Howard, Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, The Ramones

PLOT: Riff Randell battles the punk-hating administration at her high school by invoking the musical powers of her favorite band, The Ramones.

Still from Rock 'n Roll High School (1979)

COMMENTS: The Ramones were icons of minimalism. Progenitors of punk, they pioneered a sound that was somehow both retro and revolutionary, delivering two-chord, two-minute landmarks that had none of the feel of craft and all of the sensation of having been spewed out of the most primal reaches of the band members’ autonomic nervous systems. Everything about them was reduced to its bare essentials: a basic guitar-bass-drum setup, fronted by a flat, nasal vocal that was tuneful while making no pretensions to being musical, presented by a group that spoke to punk’s fierce independence with a façade of careful uniformity, from the matching leather jackets and torn jeans to the identical messy face-obscuring Kate Jackson hairstyles, and even extending to their manufactured noms de théâtre. Everything about them was carefully engineered to celebrate everybody by being nobody.

So the notion that the Ramones would be the centerpiece of a bubbly teenager’s every waking moment is a little dissonant. And that they would somehow come to have an entire feature film devoted to them—one with a substantial cult following—is nothing short of bizarre. It’s the domain of old people to complain that the kids are making idols out of empty shells, but the emptiness of the Ramones is part of their very essence. They’re almost antithetical to the idea of teenybop worship. To watch P J. Soles’ Riff Randell—a veritable firehose of giddy hyperactivity—go gaga for this quartet of empty t-shirts is to plunge headlong through the looking glass. Try to imagine a Disney Channel original movie where a precocious 12-year old learns self-confidence through the power of her favorite band, and that band turns out to be GWAR. (Note to Disney: Please greenlight this. I will absolutely write the script for you.)

But for the purposes of the Roger Corman film factory, the Ramones hardly matter. They’re answer to a Mad Lib wherein [INSERT NAME OF BAND] inspires kids to overthrow those dullard grownups. (It’s telling that Corman’s original suggestion was center the film around disco music, an idea that would have been truly transgressive if it had been filmed two years earlier and dared to address the politics of race and sexual orientation endemic to the genre.) Rock ‘n’ Roll High School has one goal, and it’s to tell the kids how much cooler they are than those stick-in-the-mud adults. And if we have to put our thumb on the scale to make the old people especially dorky and uncool, well hey, that’s just Roger Corman being a smart businessman.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the kind of movie that Rock ‘n’
Roll High School
wants to be. A rallying cry for kids. An overly broad comedy. A delivery system for popular songs. These are all perfectly noble cinematic goals. And it misses the point to criticize a movie like this for not being more realistic or thoughtful or grounded, especially when it’s steadfastly resisting any attempt to take it seriously. Every student in this high school appears to be in their 30s. Every “adult” character sports costumes and props from 1954. The screenwriters really have it in for Vince Lombardi. Vincent Van Patten plays the only high school quarterback in American history who can’t get laid (an achievement he comes by honestly). A 6-foot mouse is a consistent presence. Somehow, the coolest cat on campus is played by Clint Howard. How can you be mad at Rock ‘n’ Roll High School? This is a movie that is pleading with you to judge it as fun.

But the movie has one major thing working against it: it’s terrible. Yes, there’s a joke around every corner, but they’re not very funny, and the best jokes (e.g. Paul Bartel’s transformation into a die-hard Ramone-head, Riff’s horny dream of the band in her bathroom) are either beaten into the ground or flirt with creepiness. The film wanders down aimless subplots, like Van Patten’s tricked-out van or the activities of the dean’s sinister boy-scout lackeys. Even the merest suggestion of conflict, like whether Riff will get past groupie Angel Dust to present her songs to the band, are completely devoid of suspense. Whether you’re here for the laughs or the rebellion or the Ramones, the worst sin of Rock ‘n Roll High School is that it is tedious.

Even worse, the whole veneer of rebellion feels false and manufactured. It’s really hard to figure out just what the exceedingly irritable administration is so upset about. The Ramones aren’t inherently destructive. Heck, two of their songs (“Do You Wanna Dance” and “California Sun”) are oldies covers. It seems to be purely the concept of antagonism. “Do your parents know you’re Ramones?” Woronov’s uptight dean asks as the band rolls up in a classic convertible. The Ramones aren’t people, as far as the old folks are concerned. They’re just that other, out to destroy everything good and decent. That’s why the apocalyptic finale feels so empty. The threat Riff Randell has vanquished never seemed all that threatening to begin with.

Throughout, one thought keeps recurring: “Good night, nurse, put the Ramones back on.” And fortunately, a Ramones concert does indeed show up at the Act 2 break to save the day. It’s not that they’re exactly brimming with screen charisma. Remember, central to the Ramones’ pose is the complete lack of pose. (Collectively, the band has something like 10 lines of dialogue in the entire film, and they botch every single one of them, even the one where they announce that the post-concert pizza has arrived.) But considering how desperately hard everyone else is trying, the Ramones’ complete lack of effort is a breath of fresh air. It’s as though they’re the only ones who realize the consequences of making the Ramones your heroes. After all, they only wanna dance. Everyone else needs to be sedated.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“For all its throwaway humour, this is basically just a pleasant reworking of the kids versus adults rock’n’roll movie format of the ’50s… basically kleenteen fun.”–Time Out

(This movie was nominated for review by Pinstripe Hourglass, who argued “It may seem conventional on the surface, but I’m going to suggest the Ramones classic Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, starring P.J. Soles. It starts out as a nutty but not too weird comedy, with throwaway jokes about mice listening to rock music and Native Americans ‘scalping’ tickets (ugh)… but rather than disappear, the characters from these one note jokes stick around for the entire movie. The insanity continues to build on itself so much that by the end of the film the Ramones and P J Soles are leading a Marxist revolution against High School while giant mice-mothers watch in horror.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

One thought on “CAPSULE: ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979)”

  1. This is the first time I’ve ever seen the Ramones being tangentially tied with GWAR, though I knew some GWARistas back in my long-ago youth, and they were also Ramones fans. That said, the band that brought us “the Sexecutioner” is definitely in a different stadium than our punk-ass Ramones boys.

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