Hey Ho! Let’s Go! Listen up, kids. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School may have been released way back in 1979 but it still kicks the ass of any of those square MTV movies. Forget about Britney Spears and Mandy Moore’s brand of bubblegum pop music and their equally bland movies – they don’t hold a candle to the unbridled power of those punk rockers from New York City… the Ramones! Making a band the central focus of a film is nothing new. The Beatles did it with A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and The Monkees with Head (1968). Hell, the Spice Girls even did it with Spice World (1997). But to do it with an anti-social punk rock band like the Ramones?! And to have it produced by legendary B-movie mogul Roger Corman?! The results: a cult classic in the proud tradition of juvenile delinquent films of the 1950s.
Riff Randell (P.J. Soles) is the ultimate Ramones fan. She’s introduced gleefully bypassing Vince Lombardi High School’s PA system so that she can blast “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” to the entire school population. The energetic song wakes up the students, shatters glass, and shakes tables and pictures right off the wall. The school erupts into complete anarchy as the student body begins to spontaneous dance to the boisterous rock ‘n’ roll music. How kick ass of an opening sequence is that? It also does a great job of conveying the excitement and energy of the Ramones’ music.
Riff dreams of meeting the Ramones and giving them a song she wrote entitled, “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.” She tries it out on her gym class causing all the girls in their skimpy gym outfits (ah, Corman and his exploitation tendencies) to dance around in what can only be described as the greatest gym class ever.
Riff even camps out for days to get tickets for the Ramones’ upcoming concert while her best friend, Kate Rambeau (Dey Young) covers for her by telling the nasty, shrewish Principal Togar (Mary Woronov) that various members of Riff’s family have died. Not surprisingly, Togar doesn’t fall for it and takes Riff’s ticket away, forcing the two girls to find another way to meet their heroes. Meanwhile, good girl Kate has a major crush on the school’s quarterback, the bland Tom (Vincent Van Patten), but he has his sights on the dynamic Riff.
The film was originally called Girls Gym, then it was changed to Disco High by Corman, who wanted to capitalize on the disco craze, but was (fortunately) persuaded otherwise by director Allan Arkush. Originally, the filmmakers wanted Devo and then Van Halen before approaching the Ramones. They finally settled on Rock ‘n’ Roll High School after Arkush convinced Corman that the Ramones were the perfect band for the film. To their credit, the Ramones knew that it was the right move. Guitarist Johnny Ramone was a huge fan of Corman’s films and when he heard that the producer was behind the film, he agreed to do it. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School does a great job of playfully championing the Ramones as rock gods and yet shows them being accessible to their fans as well. The band first appears in a car driving down the street on the way to their venue as they play “I Just Wanna Have Something To Do.” Once outside the club, they get out of the car and interact with the crowd of ticket buyers (who were, incidentally, actual Ramones fans). The editing, coupled with the insanely catchy song, gives the scene an infectious energy that is so much fun to watch. Incidentally, Dean Cundey was the film’s cinematographer and he would go on to shoot some of John Carpenter’s best films, including Halloween (1978) and Escape from New York (1981).
From B-movie veterans like Paul (Eating Raoul) Bartel and Mary (Death Race 2000) Woronov to newcomers (at the time), P.J. (Halloween) Soles and Dey (Strange Invaders) Young, the entire cast has a lot of fun spouting the film’s wonderfully inspired cornball dialogue (“If you don’t like it, you can put it where you the monkey puts the nuts,” Riff says defiantly to Togar at one point) courtesy of National Lampoon magazine writers Richard Whitley and Russ Dvonch. I would be remiss without also mentioning the presence of Corman regular Dick Miller (as a cop) and Clint Howard who plays matchmaker for Tom. The Ramones are good sports and mumble their way through the film and truly come alive during the music sequences like the pros that they are. This film rightfully cements their reputation as legends.
Shot in only 15 days (which, when you think about it, is entirely appropriate for this kind of film), Rock ‘n’ Roll High School embodies the essence of the punk rock music that made the Ramones famous. The film is bursting with youthful energy, a dose of good ol’ fashion anarchy, and is loads of fun to watch. These are also the ingredients that made Rock ‘n’ Roll High School a cult film. Corman cannily marketed it as a Midnight Movie in the hopes that the same people who flocked religiously to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) would come to see the Ramones. It was a modest commercial success upon its initial release and actually garnered critical praise – very unusual for a cult film.
While Rock ‘n’ Roll High School will appeal predominantly to fans of the Ramones (duh!), it is also one of those fun, goofy movies to invite friends over and watch with copious amounts of junk food on hand. This film is all about loving music and a particular band unabashedly. Riff gives herself up to the music and this translates into an enthusiastic celebration of the Ramones and the rowdy, rebellious spirit of rock ‘n’ roll music. Repeated midnight screenings, coupled with steady appearances on T.V., have helped the film endure over the years so that is has become a beloved cult classic.