Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Rock 'N' Roll High School

 It wouldn't be entirely accurate to say Rock 'N' Roll High School (1979) is to the Ramones what A Hard Day's Night is to the Beatles. Yes, both movies are musicals prominently featuring the songs and performers of their respective bands and build to a concert, but A Hard Day's Night was conceived from the get-go as a vehicle for the Fab Four. The personalities of John, Paul, George, and Ringo are featured center stage, and it's the Beatles' natural wit and charisma that carry the picture. They're clearly the stars, and the picture has been credited  with influencing a new cinematic style.

Rock 'N' Roll High School, on the other hand, began life under the title of Disco High because producer Roger Corman, the master exploitation filmmaker, wanted to cash in on that trend, but it was director Allan Arkush who convinced Corman to go with rock. IMDB lists several other acts that were considered before the Ramones were brought on board: Todd Rundgren, Cheap Trick, Devo, Tom Petty, and Van Halen. How close any of these performers were to being in the picture I don't know, but the point is the Ramones could have been substituted by just about any other rock band (and I say that as a fan of their music).

Unlike A Hard Day's Night, which was essentially a day in the life of the Beatles as they get ready for a show, Rock 'N' Roll High School has a plot and conflict, resurrecting the time-honored clash between rock-n-roll-loving teenagers and the square, oppressive adults. On one side is Riff Randle (P.J. Soles), the hard-rock chick who plays the Ramones over the P.A. at Vince Lombardi High School, and she has two goals: get to the Ramones concert when they come to town and get them the song she wrote for them (appropriately, "Rock N Roll High School). In Riff's way is Miss Togar (Mary Woronov), the new principal who insists she is going to crack down on the wild student body and its disruptive music.

There are other plot threads running through Rock 'N' Roll High School. Riff's best friend, the bookish Kate Rambeau (Dey Young), likes the football team quarterback Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten), but he's too dense to notice, and he's got the hots for Riff. There's Mr. McGree (Paul Bartel), the Beethoven-loving music teacher who discovers these Ramones might be on to something. And then there's Eaglebauer (Clint Howard), the go-to guy for any of student need. It all leads to a student takeover of the high school  with the Ramones and a final confrontation with the adults that ends explosively.

I wouldn't call Rock 'N' Roll High School a fantasy picture (although it is about wish fulfillment), but the movie is filled with a lot of bizarre little details that push it into the realm of surreal. Miss Togar's will is enforced by a pair of hall monitors, Fritz Hansel and Fritz Gretal, who are always in uniform and apparently answer her call at all hours, even driving to the concert at night from the school in a motorcycle. When Togar tells one of them to take a note to Mr. McGree, he folds it into a paper airplane, and we follow its flight path through the campus until he catches it in a classroom and hands it to McGree. Togar's scientific experiments to prove the danger of rock n roll involves playing Ramones music until the white lab mice spontaneously combust. She might be on to something because at the concert, a giant white mouse is denied entrance because of that danger until he produces a pair of earphones.

The movie works by striking a balance between anarchic rock fantasy and high school nostalgia, particularly with Eaglebauer. Characters looking for his help (like setting up a date or learning how to unhook a bra) go into the men's bathroom where there is a line of people waiting and a secretary taking appointments and directing clients to a stall which opens up to reveal the kind of office you'd expect as Hollywood agent to have.

I said the Ramones could have been replaced by any rock band, and while that's true, they fit into the movie quite well. Granted, they aren't really required to do much more than stand around and look cool until called upon to perform a song, but with their black leather jackets; short, punchy songs; and punk, go-to-hell attitudes, they're a good match for the movie, and they add to its sense of chaos. Plus, their musical performances are inspired and fun.

Rock 'N' Roll High School is just fun and energetic, and for all it's talk of the dangers of rock music, it's relatively tame and in its own way innocent. Like any good rock show, it's simply a good time.

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