Unless otherwise noted in the post title, these are not
reviews, per se. They are articles for people who have already seen the film or read the book in question--meaning that there will be spoilers. If you're already familiar with the material being covered, or don't mind the plot being spoiled, please read on and leave a comment.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

[Ephebiphobia] Rock 'N' Roll High School (1979)

Rock 'N' Roll High School - Theatrical Poster
Theatrical Poster
When severe disciplinarian Evelyn Togar takes over as principal of Vince Lombardi High, she has one goal in mind: whipping the rebellious student body into shape. The method in which she plans to do this is by an outright war on rock music, which, she assures us, has proven dangerous to lab mice during scientific trials. The students aren't so keen on falling into line, though, especially rock fanatic Riff, whose sole ambition in life is writing songs for the Ramones...and basically just rockin' the hell out.

There's something of a romantic subplot involving a love triangle between the teens—Riff's best friend Kate (Dey Young) is crushing on football quarterback Tom (Vincent Van Patten), but Tom only has eyes for Riff—but basically the majority of the film is about rebelling against an oppressive system, scrambling to get to a rock concert, and then combining both into a (literally) explosive finale.

As fine cinema, it hardly rates a mention, but as a counterculture comedy, it still stands up even today. It's fairly light on plot, and what little there is bounces around rather haphazardly, but the anarchic happenings will keep you locked in and entertained, nevertheless. Rock movies aren't really about plot, anyway, they're about the overall experience. Remember the Monkees in the movie HEAD (1968)? Talk about an experience. It was the spirit of these classic rock movies that the filmmakers were trying to capture for a new generation.

This is highly regarded as something of a cult classic, and with good reason. It's a teen-centric film of rebellion that falls somewhere between the bubblegum goodness of the BEACH PARTY films (1963+) and the atomic warhead of PUMP UP THE VOLUME (1990). It's mostly good-natured fun with a solid cast of actors, but some of the comedy was a little too David Zucker for my tastes. The human-sized mice and other jokes of that ilk seem at odds with the more clever points in the script—like when a nerd implores "I'm allergic to violence. I break out in blood!" or when Riff declares "Tom Roberts is so boring, his brother is an only child."

The characterization is pretty flimsy, but what is admirable is that the filmmakers didn't always go for the standard character tropes. For instance, Tom is a handsome jock, but he's not portrayed as a preening, braying stud. Instead, he is incredibly self-conscious and awkward, unable to speak to girls about anything more substantial than the weather. Kate wears glasses and is undoubtedly the smartest girl in school, and yet she's not the subject of ridicule from her peers or outcast from them in any way.

Eaglebauer (Clint Howard), though, is the requisite mover-and-shaker character found in almost every high school movie, the kind of guy who has an office in the men's room and can get you anything for a price. I never knew a guy like this in high school (I'm not entirely convinced that they actually exist), but I always wanted to, even though I get the feeling that these are the same guys who wind up in prison movies, operating the black market out of the cafeteria.

Rock 'N' Roll High School - P.J. & The Ramones
P.J. & The Ramones
Riff is played by the effervescent P.J. Soles, and she is downright adorable in the role. Interestingly, this Ramones superfan had never even heard of the band in real life before being cast, so she had to receive a crash course before filming began. She also chose and paid for her own wardrobe, so all of the snarky internet commenters who claim "A real Ramones fan would never wear that!" can feel pretty good about themselves, knowing that the character of Riff was a Ramones fan being dressed by a non-Ramones fan.

Evelyn Togar (Mary Woronov) barked an awful lot, but she bit very little, assuming that the students would instantly cower in fear if she yelled loud enough and sent out her perverted and ineffectual hall monitors to do her bidding. Music teacher Mr. McGree is initially rather snooty, but he eventually succumbs to the allure of rock music and joins the kids in their revolution, evolving into a "hip professor" character in the same vein as Robert Cummings' Professor Sutwell from BEACH PARTY.

Any weak points in the film are easily overlooked, as the success of this film rests largely on the musical performances and God damn, do they deliver. The lengthy concert that the Ramones stage in the final third of the movie would have seemed like filler in just about any other outing, but here we know it is exactly what everything has been leading up to. I had forgotten how good the Ramones really were, until "I Want You Around" and "I Just Want To Have Something To Do" were cued up onscreen, and five minutes after the movie ended, they were downloading to my iPod, too.

Rock 'N' Roll High School - Togar's Final Solution
Togar's Final Solution
In the end of the film, Togar burns the students' record albums, which she calls "the final solution." This is also what Hitler called his extermination of the Jewish people, solidifying Togar's role as a senseless dictator, while also echoing the book and record burnings that have plagued society for ages. Togar's final solution proves to be the final straw, though, and Riff leads the kids (and the Ramones) into the hallowed halls of education to truly turn it into the Rock 'n' Roll High School that the title suggests. When the police threaten to storm the building (including Corman stalwart Dick Miller in his usual cameo), the teens relinquish control of the school back to Togar...and then promptly blow it up.

When the students blew up the school in ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, it was comically subversive. When they did it in HEATHERS (1988), it was darkly anarchic. If it were to happen in a movie today, unfortunately, it would be deemed domestic terrorism and blamed for the next spate of violent attacks. It's a much different world we're living in now.

Allan Arkush directed this for Roger Corman's New World Pictures in 1979, and it seems as if they were purposefully crafting a cult movie—they even went so far as to crawl the lyrics to the Ramones song "Teenage Lobotomy" across the bottom of the screen, which is just begging for audience participation. Had there been more moments available for viewer interaction, this might be playing on midnight marquees across the nation opposite THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975).

No matter how you feel about the Ramones and their music, there is surely something that we can all agree on: It’s a good thing that this wasn't filmed as the disco movie that it was originally meant to be.

DISCO HIGH SCHOOL just doesn’t have the same ring to it.


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