The Ramones never really topped the charts, but if all you saw of them was Rock ‘N’ Roll High School, you’d be forgiven for thinking they did.
A punk-rock A Hard Day’s Night filtered through Roger Corman-brand Americana, Rock ‘N’ Roll High School is a film that somehow manages to embody the punk spirit while also exploiting it. Opening with a school-wide “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker” dance party reminiscent of the Beach Party movies, it takes place in a world where punk rock is the principal voice of American youth. Rock and roll music changes mice into rockers, turns squares into alt-cool kids, and saves the day for all involved. Fuck yes it does.
Riff Randell is the real punk rocker in Rock ‘N’ Roll High School. Played to spunky perfection by PJ Soles in a killer fringe, she’s the very embodiment of teenage energy and rebellion, whether hijacking the school loudspeaker system or ditching class to camp out for concert tickets. Our budding songwriter protagonist gets to meet and have her song played by the band she fantasises most about, before teaming up with them to blow up the school.
If Riff seems like a Mary Sue, that’s because she is - and unapologetically so. The concept of Rock ‘N’ Roll High School came straight out of director Allan Arkush’s idle fantasies of his favourite band playing his school – and of blowing said school up. Fresh off a pair of Roger Corman classics (Deathsport and Hollywood Boulevard), Arkush hijacked Corman’s idea for a film called Disco High, which was to cash in on the success of Grease and Saturday Night Fever, and reimagined it to cash in on punk instead. Arkush constructed a fad flick more earnest than most, thanks to being genuinely passionate about the source material – he was an avid record collector and Ramones fan himself.
Originally, the featured band was slated to be Cheap Trick, but despite that band’s higher record sales at the time, it’s hard to imagine Rock ‘N’ Roll High School without the Ramones. Improbably lanky and flop-haired in denim and leather, the Ramones cast a shadow on the film even in the scenes they’re not in. There’s a Beatlesesque mania around them in the film’s alternate universe – a mania the film totally sells. The band is magnetic from their first appearance, slouching down the street to “I Just Want To Have Something To Do.” Their chilled-out, pizza-gobbling insolence is infectious on record, but it’s even better in the film’s blistering live performance (recorded over the course of a day). Pat Smear and Darby Crash of The Germs can be seen in the audience, underlining the punk cred of the band and the film.
But rebels are nothing without something to rebel against, and that’s where the “High School” part of the title comes in. Corman regulars Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, and Dick Miller join Vincent Van Patten, Dey Young, and a terrific Clint Howard in filling out the school population. This is the goofiest brand of high-school hijinks imaginable, full of silly pratfalls, sleazy Clint Howard sex comedy, and embarrassed authority figures. And what authority figures! Mary Woronov’s school principal, supported by Gestapo-esque student enforcers, is an all-time great campy villain. The level of camp is just anarchic enough to fall in line with the headlining band’s spirit: it doesn’t give a shit what jokes it throws out there, and it sure as hell doesn’t take itself too seriously.
And of course, the students coat the school in graffiti, rename it Rock ‘N’ Roll High, and fucking blow it up at the end. How many high school comedies have the stones to do that?
By the time the sequel Rock ‘N’ Roll High School Forever hit cinemas in 1991, punk was over (despite being “not dead” and all that), at least if that film was any indication. Its featured band was - wait for it - Corey Feldman and the Eradicators, a group that existed only in the film. It satisfied nobody: the grunge movement was hitting the mainstream, Britpop was starting to take off, and rock music just didn’t feel as dangerous as it had in punk’s heyday.
But we’ve still got Rock ‘N’ Roll High School, the Day-Glo-and-leather ode to teenage rebellion and punk rock that will never die. Get some kicks and check it out.