Retro Review: ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL: School’s Out at the Plaza This Weekend

By Mark Arson, Contributing Writer

Art Opening & A Movie Presents ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979); Dir: Allan Arkush (with Joe Dante and Jerry Zucker, uncredited); Executive Producer: Roger Corman; Starring P.J. Soles, Vincent Van Patten, Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, The Ramones; Art from Dave Cook, Derek Yaniger, R.Land, Kevin Rej, Chris Hamer, Josh May, Matthew Manning, Shane Morton, Scotty Mominee and Trish Chenard. Fri. May 13, 9:30 pm and Sat. May 14, 9:30 PM; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

Teen comedies are a tricky thing to pull off. Any film can be funny with good enough writing, but for a teen comedy to be memorable, for the audience to really fall in love with the setting and characters, some sort of fantasy element has to be at play. As most of us know, the day-to-day life of being in high school can be tedious and excruciating. Some of the best movies from this category excel at this, many of the films of John Hughes, for instance. Before those, though, there was ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL. Originally pitched as DISCO HIGH, and slated to star the Bee Gees, as fate would have it, the film ended up centered around the Ramones, a fitting choice as they fit in better in the world of B-movies than they did in real life.

ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL is set at Vince Lombardi High, where dozens of students smoke and buy test scores (as well as a ridiculous variety of  other things) in the restrooms, paper airplanes defy the laws of physics, there are…er…..about three teachers total, and Riff Randell pretty much does what she wants. Riff, played as the embodiment of a free spirited teenager by PJ Soles,  is the self-proclaimed #1 Ramones fan. She also happens to have written quite a good song for them, which was written by The Ramones in real life (a stroke of genius). Part of the conflict in the film involves Riff trying to get her song to the Ramones, but the major friction occurs between the new Principal, Evelyn Togar (Mary Woronov, at the top of her game here) and, well, the entire student body. The earlier rebellion swells to a standoff by the end of the film—mice explode, documents are shredded, and the Ramones even show up at school!

The Ramones and #1 fan Riff Randell rock the walls off Vince Lombardi High in ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL. Photo credit: New World Pictures.

As I said earlier, the fantasy element is really important to a film like this, and as such, the focus on the Ramones couldn’t be more appropriate. In the movie, they ride into town playing to a line of fans waiting in line for days for tickets to their show, 100 tickets are bought by the kids at the high school, and tempers flare upon Principal Togar’s burning of hundreds of their record albums. It’s hard to imagine now, since they’re evolved into a musical legend (partly cemented by all of their founding members having died years ago), but the Ramones really weren’t all that popular at the time, especially not in the US. They are obviously great sports here, though (especially in the dream/fantasy sequence), and their propensity for playing it straight makes it all the more convincing that they could really have been the biggest band in the world. Maybe their confidence was just something that was easy to pick up on film.

Mary Woronov plays Principal Evelyn Togar in ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL. Photo credit: New World Pictures.

It seems unlikely that the Bee Gees would have inspired the kids to blow up the school at the end of DISCO HIGH, even though it would have been hilarious if they did. The film we (fortunately) did get instead is full of memorable characters, some of which are Ramones playing themselves, of course, and plenty of great vintage ‘70s comic moments and teenage rebellion. You’ll have a hard time understanding why the Ramones weren’t huge, and you’ll wish that you went to Vince Lombardi High, what’s left of it anyway.

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