Rock ‘n’ Roll High School

US (1979) Dir. Allan Arkush

Wouldn’t it be cool if there were an education establishment a’la Fame, which teaches the ways of rock music? Of course there isn’t – unless you count the University of Life – which is why kids need rock ‘n’ roll music to help them stick it to the authority.

Vince Lombardi High School has been appointed a new principal in Evelyn Togar (Mary Woronov) after the previous one was reduced to a nervous wreck. Togar’s first task is to restore order and discipline in the school and targets the biggest troublemaker, Riff Randell (P.J Soles), who along with studious best friend Kate Rambeau (Dey Young), takes over the school P.A to blast her favourite band The Ramones to everyone.

Togar implements a total crackdown on rock music, blaming it for turning the students into delinquents, which doesn’t deter their behaviour until she confiscates tickets to a Ramones concert Riff skipped school to buy. The battle lines are drawn as Riff, Kate and all the other students unite to end the tyranny of Principal Togar.  

American teen movies set in high school are the ultimate fantasy rides, at least from the perspective of us here in the UK where 99.9% of the antics depicted in these films would never occur in our schools. If US high schools are like this then that would certainly explain a lot. Obviously, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is a work of frivolous fiction designed to have fun with, and could be viewed as the punk response to Grease a year earlier.

In fact, it might have been a totally different film; producer Roger Corman wanted to return to the teen movies he made in the 60s but with modern day music, which in 1979 meant Disco. After a few rewrites, a rock’n’roll theme was agreed with either Cheap Trick or Todd Rundgren as the music act, but scheduling conflicts precluded this. Cast member Paul Bartel, who plays music teacher Mr. McGree, suggested The Ramones, which frankly was a better fit for the story.   

However, because this was ’79, we have to accept that kids in bright pink spandex and permed hair rocked out to The Ramones when they’d be more at home poncing about at Studio 54. But at least the rebellious nature of Punk (US style) is reflected in the kids’ being at odds with their draconian principal, as opposed to trying to bring her down by grooving in a disgruntled manner to the Bee Gees or Donna Summer.

Riff is a popular bubbly blonde with attitude able to galvanise her schoolmates through her energy and cheek, but not aggressively so, a sort of proto-Ferris Bueller if you will. As The Ramones’ biggest fan, Riff has also written a song for them (Rock’n’Roll High School natch) which she hopes to give to them at their only concert in town coming up. She takes three days off school to camp outside the venue to be first in line, only to be usurped by groupie Angle Dust (Lynn Farrell), but still gets 100 tickets to share with her schoolmates.

Unfortunately, Tagor doesn’t believe the notes Kate takes to school on Riff’s behalf about dead relatives (including her goldfish) and has her two slobbish hall monitors Hansel (Loren Lester) and Gretel (Daniel Davies) forcefully take their concert tickets off them. Now, Riff has to find another way to attend the concert but is distracted by Kate trying to woo star football player Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten).

Oh yes, it wouldn’t be a high school movie without hormones running wild would it? Tom might be a star on the football filed but is a dud in the romance stakes, putting girls off with his lack of personality. He enlists the help of the school fix it man Eaglebauer (Clint Howard) – his office in the boy’s toilets because of course it is – to hook him up with a girl; science geek Kate is his natural match but Tom fancies Riff instead!

Since they need to keep fans of The Ramones occupied in between their appearances – their songs are featured throughout, so being a fan definitely helps – the content of the subplot is hardly sophisticated but nor should it be. Gags about undoing bras using inflatable dolls, a gym teacher named Miss Steroid and exploding mice (which does have an amusing pay off during the concert scene which is very clever) are abound, whilst the stereotypes of stoners and groupies attending punk concerts yield less laughs.

For a band who seem to take their two minute chant-a-long thrashes seriously, The Ramones do get into the spirit of things in a number of goofy scenes, like playing a song whilst driving to the gig, singing in Riff’s bathroom in a spliff induced fantasy, and the climax at the school. There is a ten-minute segment devoted to the concert where they bash out their hits with further plot points continued in the background.

Despite the energy and commitment of the cast, this is about as far from high art as you can get, riddled with clichés, half-baked Animal House inspired jokes that haven’t aged well, and lazy stereotyping, yet it isn’t bad at all. Whether it is the sight of The Ramones in this scenario, or the infectious exuberance of P.J Soles, it is quite easy to get caught up in this 93-minute slice of nonsense that has cult hit written all over it.

Trivia note – co-writer Joe Dante was the uncredited co-director of this film, taking over for an exhausted Allan Arkush, his regular collaborator. Also, there are other rock hits on the soundtrack, courtesy of Chuck Berry, Velvet Underground, Brownsville Station, Devo, Alice Cooper, Wings, Fleetwood Mac, and more.

A product of its time that couldn’t be made today for fear of being 100% cheese, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is an unexpectedly enjoyable blast of punk infused silliness most people can enjoy. Except mice… Gabba gabba hey!