Every so often there’s a collaboration that seems like an extension of destiny. More often than not these collaborations fizzle out before anything hits the screen. The Cramps sent demos to John Waters for Cry Baby only to have them rejected. The Sex Pistols planned collaboration with the creative team behind the cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert, only to have it fizzle out due to Johnny Rotten being an unrepentant asshole. When it does happens, as it did in 1979’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, it is a glorious experience, simultaneously reminding us why we love both rock ‘n’ roll and the movies.
The similarities between Roger Corman and the Ramones aren’t easily apparent, but, believe me, they’re there. Corman, a prolific director and producer of B-movies, was often written off as nothing more than schlockmeister making cheap, derivative exploitation films. Proving that one isn’t what they’re labeled all of the time, Corman produced films that gave the public their first glimpses of truly original and unique voices. Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Joe Dante, James Cameron, Jack Nicholson, Jonathan Demme, Robert Towne, John Sayles, and many others all worked with Corman very early in their careers. Corman showed countless people that you didn’t have to be David Lean or Cecil B. Demille to make an interesting, lasting film. He was a punk rock pioneer of independent cinema.
The Ramones, on the other hand, are like a musical extension of Corman’s work. Easily written off as simplistic, exploitative trash, the Ramones’ work is much deeper than initially appraised because it taps into universal themes of angst, apathy, or downright silliness. Where it’s easy to paint a picture of Corman’s wide reaching influence on cinema, it’s not quite as easy to do with the Ramones. It seems like they influenced everyone of quality that came after them. Like Corman, the Ramones showed countless people that you didn’t have to be Jimmy Page to pick up a guitar and rock.
Initially conceived as a vehicle for Todd Rundgren who passed, then Cheap Trick who also passed, before finally settling on the Ramones. While the Ramones are one of the most influential bands ever, they were never a chart-topping band. Their highest charting single, Rockaway Beach, topped out at #66. Had the film featured Rundgren or Cheap Trick it undoubtedly would not be the cult classic it is today.
Here’s the thing: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School isn’t a particularly brilliant film. What’s important is that the things the film gets right, it gets really right. There are a number of low-budget films that feature glorified cameos of top-billed bands. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School doesn’t do that. Though the film takes its time before introducing the band, once they’re introduced they remain in the film to the very end.
Director Allan Arkush makes a cameo as the doorman, patting down individuals for weapons, drugs, and other illicit paraphernalia before the Ramones’ concert. It’s a brief moment that doesn’t have a ton of depth, but is easily identifiable for anyone who has ever attended a rowdy rock ‘n’ roll show. Before becoming a filmmaker, Arkush worked at the Filmore East in New York and his first-hand knowledge is put to good use here right down to the self-aggrandizing disc jockey who introduces the band, the sleazy groupies and managers, and super-fans who place great importance on inconsequential things like being first in line.
A majority of the film’s humor consists of generic high school comedy gags – nerds are pummeled by jocks, adults don’t get it, the school’s administration is a bunch of rock ‘n’ roll hating squares. There is, of course, problems related to teenage sexual frustration. The gags are mostly forgettable saccharine, with the exception of Clint Howard as a fixer for the frustrated teenager. As Eaglebauer, Howard coaches the frustrated male lead, Tommy (Vincent Van Patten), how to trick out his van into a shaggin’ wagon, as well as how to unhook the various forms bras. These gags only work because the idea of Clint Howard as a love guru (no, not that one) is always comical. For a film featuring a band that sang songs about huffing and male prostitution, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is surprisingly safe in its material.
The film is adept at exploiting the always present generation divide. Whether rock music, video games, comic books, rap music, or any other thing that is enjoyed by the youth, there is always a certain adult element that believes their kids would be perfectly obedient angels if not for that damn music, video games, etc. This conflict comes to a head when the totalitarian principle, Miss Togar (Mary Woronov), decides to burn all the students’ rock ‘n’ roll records, resulting in a riot and subsequent demolition of the school. The sequence brings to mind the infamous Disco Demolition Night, a promotion at a baseball game gone wrong where the destruction of disco records resulted in a massive riot forcing the home team to forfeit the game.
Of all the gags in the film none is more inspired than making Joey Ramone a teen idol, a sex symbol. Following their concert, while the rest of the band munches on pizza, Joey is forced by his manager to consume health food in order to maintain his physical perfection. Riff Randell (P.J. Soles), the Ramones’ biggest fan, fawns over Joey in the same manner that countless teenagers fantasized about David Cassidy or any other ephemeral teen idol.
Soles as Riff Randell is just another of her roles in iconic cult movies – Halloween, Stripes, and Carrie being others. The rest of the film’s cast is rounded out with other Corman regulars. The aforementioned Clint Howard being one. Paul Bartel, who directed the excellent Death Race 2000 for Corman, shines as the music teacher that transforms from a square classical music loving to a Ramones devotee proclaiming, “My only regret is that I have one life to give for rock ‘n’ roll!” Also from Death Race 2000, Mary Woronov plays Miss Togar with the cartoonish villainy that role deserves. She also has possibly the best line in the film, remarking after meeting the Ramones, “Do your parents know that you’re Ramones?” No Roger Corman production would be complete without an appearance by Dick Miller, who appears here as the police chief.
The Ramones aren’t the only band featured in the film’s excellent soundtrack. Songs by MC5, Devo, Alice Cooper, Chuck Berry, and more are also featured. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School could never be considered a showcase for the Ramones’ acting abilities, which are basically non-existent. Dee Dee Ramone is given two lines, each one about pizza. However, the film is great showcase for the raw power that was the Ramones’ music.
The counterculture has been co-opted by the mainstream. Now that most of the Ramones are dead* it seems like they’re finally getting the recognition they deserve and then some. CBGB, the dingy club where the Ramones started, shuttered its doors, but plans to survive as a brand to be licensed to the highest bidder. There was also a dreadful film attempting to mythologize the now-defunct establishment. Ramones songs now adorn car ads. The same could be said of the still-living Corman who just picked up an honorary Oscar last year. Joe Dante, director of Gremlins and a co-writer on Rock ‘n’ Roll High School plans to film a biopic about Corman soon.
As evidenced by the dreadful Corey Feldmen led sequel, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School Forever, this film contained a formula that cannot be recreated. The Ramones spawned countless imitators and none have come close. The same could be said of Corman, whose schlock aesthetic is being imitated by the makers of dreck like Sharknado. Whether imitating Corman or the Ramones, the copycats don’t come close. These are one of a kind.
* Of the four Ramones featured in the film, only the drummer, Marky, is still alive. It is rumored that Marky Ramone has set forth a new creative path, writing a series of historical romance novels. Copies of his first novel, Lady Waynesworth’s Desires, is said to fetch a pretty penny on the collector’s market.