Roger Corman’s “Rock ‘N’ Roll High School” is one of the all-time best rock & roll movies. Corman is revered in Hollywood for shooting films on a shoestring budget, for never losing money on a film, and for giving some of the best filmmakers their start. The list includes Ron Howard, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, and Peter Bogdonovich. Along the way, he was behind some cult, and legitimate, classics; “Death Race” (the original and the recent remake) “Grand Theft Auto,” and “Little Shop of Horrors.” None of them is more deserving of the title “classic” than 1979’s “Rock ‘N’ Roll High School,” which came out in a “Rock On Edition” a few years back. The main reason to see RNRHS is that it’s the only non-documentary film to feature The Ramones, who were more influential than any band this side of The Beatles. They drew up the blueprint for punk rock: short songs with NO guitar solos, and a sound that was as stripped-down as their stage patter – which amounted to their bassist counting off: “One, two, three, four!”
When The Ramones first toured England, a punk band sprung up in their wake in every city they played–bands that included The Buzzcocks, The Clash, The Damned, and The Sex Pistols. As much a concept as a band, The Ramones: Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, and Marky, all adopted the last name Ramone and (like the early Beatles) wore matching outfits – in this case, leather jackets, t-shirts, torn jeans and black Chuck Taylors. Still the accepted mode of dress for punk rockers the world over! Their influence seems to be endless, and can be seen in the style of innumerous bands–many of whom surpassed The Ramones sales figures, like Green Day, and The Donnas, who played with their formula and all adopted the same first name. Standing on the shoulders of these giants, many others reached the top of the charts
“Rock ‘N’ Roll High School” has solid performances throughout, it keeps moving, and it contains the timeless themes of teenage rebellion, loud music, and blowing up your stupid old high school. But it’s The Ramones that hold the whole thing together. They weren’t anyone’s first choice to play the band in the film. Todd Rundgren, Cheap Trick, Devo and (a then unknown) Van Halen were all considered first. But The Ramones were known for working quickly and cheaply, so they spoke Corman’s language. They recorded their first album in a few days for just over $6,000 and they were already in Los Angeles working on an album with legendary producer/future jailbird Phil Spector. The movie wouldn’t be revered today if any other band had gotten the gig. Sometimes, underexposure is its own reward. It’s because The Ramones output is so limited that the movie is such a treasure. Like James Dean, they should have left a bigger mark on the silver screen–a long, greasy, mark. It’s their original, clearly defined concept of what rock and roll IS that informs the film, and makes Riff’s devotion to the band, and the band’s negative effect on the student body, plausible. It’s hard to believe that Todd Rundgren’s music could incite students to blow up their school.
The Ramones burst onto the screen singing their dumbly dangerous: “I Just Want To Have Something To Do” in a red convertible, with “GABBA GABBA HEY” license plates. Veteran character actress and former Andy Warhol star Mary Woronov nearly steals the show from a strong cast as the rock music hating Principal Togar. Her scenes with The Ramones crackle, and she plays her role mostly straight, yet gets most of the laughs. P.J. Soles stars as Riff Randall, the rockin’est girl at Vince Lombardi High, who’s an aspiring songwriter and The Ramones #1 fan. She camps out to get her friends Ramones tickets, but loses hers and her best friend’s to the evil Miss Togar. Luckily, she wins tickets to the show in a radio giveaway, and they take their rightful place at the concert with their friends. It’s a good thing too, because we’re treated to live versions of “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Lobotomy,” (which is subtitled for some strange reason) “California Sun,” “Pinhead,” and “She’s The One.” The concert footage was actually shot at The Roxy in LA, but The Ramones re-recorded the audio portion for the film. The audio from the original concert is included as an extra on the expanded (2005) Rock On Edition. Of course Riff gets her songs to the band, and they promise to listen to them and swing by her school the following day if they like them. They arrive in the middle of a riot caused by Miss Togar’s burning of the student’s rock & roll records, and Joey Ramone quips: “Things sure have changed since WE got kicked out of high school!” Before it’s over, The Ramones play another couple of songs, Riff is made an honorary Ramone, the school is destroyed, and Miss Togar is driven mad. Serves her right! Rock and roll wins again! The soundtrack also includes Chuck Berry, Brownsville Station, Alice Cooper, Devo, Eddie & The Hot Rods, Fleetwood Mac, Paul McCartney & Wings. The MC5, Todd Rundgren, The Paley Brothers, Brian Eno, and The Velvet Underground. Not too shabby!
Howard Stern plans to remake “Rock ‘N’ Roll High School,” and it’s scheduled for release in 2010. I wish them luck, but I doubt they’re going to be able to match the original for sheer exuberance and the love of rock and roll.