Shout! Factory // 1979 // 93 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // April 26th, 2010
Will your school be next?
The first of Shout! Factory's newly-acquired Roger Corman titles comes to Blu-ray with a great HD transfer and tons of bonus features, plus Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny and Marky.
The students of Vince Lombardi High School loooove rock 'n' roll, and none love it more than Riff Randall (P.J. Soles, Halloween), who's willing to wait outside for three days straight for tickets to see her favorite band, The Ramones. Despite the best efforts of fascist Principal Togar (Mary Woronov, The House of the Devil) to stop them, Riff and her best friend, bookish Kate (Dey Young, The Running Man), will stop at nothing to meet the band and convince them to play Riff's songs. Everyone wants to be sedated! They want to rock 'n' roll all night, and party every day! It's Rock 'n' Roll High School!
Has punk rock ever felt so upbeat and joyous as it does in Allan Arkush's 1979 Ramones-based musical Rock 'n' Roll High School? A better musical than it ever gets credit for being, Rock 'n' Roll High School does just what all musicals ought to do: it has loads of energy, lets us hear great music and generally lifts our spirits. That it does so with leather jackets, mutant mice and horny teenagers should not be held against the film.
Rock 'n' Roll High School is certainly a time capsule -- of the Ramones in their prime, of youth-marketed exploitation films, of Clint Howard back when he had hair -- though it still remains just as enjoyable today as in 1979. Some of that is precisely because it's a time capsule, assuming you're able to enjoy movies un-ironically, but it's also because when you strip away those "exploitable elements," the film has an appeal that's universal. It's a wish-fulfillment fantasy about hanging out with your favorite band and breaking free from societal institutions so you can do whatever you want with your life. It's about turning school into a party and giving the finger to authority. It's a live-action cartoon in which no joke is too silly. In a lot of ways, Rock 'n' Roll High School reminds me of the Beach Party movies of the 1960s (produced, not surprisingly, through Roger Corman's old studio, American International Pictures). There's a little more of an "edge" to High School because it's been updated for the times -- the sexual motives of the characters are much more on the surface (though it was implied that Frankie Avalon was looking to get laid in the Beach Party, here Vincent Van Patten just comes out and says it) and P.J. Soles smokes a joint in one scene (as the Ramones serenade her with "I Want You Around" in her bedroom, probably the film's best scene), but it's all pretty innocent stuff.
That's what's most amazing about Rock 'n' Roll High School: it's a movie about fast, loud punk rock music and condemning authority and burning institutions to the ground. It should be aggressive and hostile, but instead it's sweet, goofy, and fun. It doesn't try and sanitize the Ramones or their music by turning them into something they're not; it just presents them in a context where they seem both alien and right at home. As actors, all the guys in the band have an incredibly rough charm, and director Arkush knows just how to use them for laughs (like the sight of Dee Dee Ramone playing the bass in Riff's shower) without making jokes at their expense. It's so easy to think of the number of ways Rock 'n' Roll High School might have failed with a different treatment (and has; for evidence on how to screw up essentially the same material, see Adam Rifkin's 1999 film Detroit Rock City) that the extent to which the movie succeeds is a small miracle. The word "gem" gets thrown around way too much in movie criticism (probably by me, even), but that's exactly what Rock 'N' Roll High School is.
If this Blu-ray of Rock 'n' Roll High School is any indication of what we can expect from Shout! Factory's HD releases of the Roger Corman catalogue, I'm a happy, happy boy. The film is presented in an MPEG-4-encoded, 1080p anamorphic widescreen transfer that, while not quite perfect, is hands-down the best Rock 'n' Roll High School has ever looked. Though there are a few shots that bear some scratches or print damage, the image is consistently clean and clear with bright colors and just enough grain to give it the feel of film. Fine detail isn't as apparent as on many more modern HD titles, but that's to be expected for such a low-budget effort. Overall, the movie looks exactly as it should. The Blu-ray also restores the film's original mono audio track for the sake of fidelity, another touch I liked. Obviously, it's not going to blow the speakers off your home system (and this is the Ramones we're talking about), but the music has energy and the track helps add the feeling that you've been transported back to 1979 to see the film theatrically for the first time.
Shout! Factory's comprehensive collection of bonus features collect the supplements from every past edition of Rock 'n' Roll High School, including the original '90s laserdisc, the 2001 New Concorde release (now out of print) and Disney's release from 2005. There are four (4!) commentary tracks to work through, and though there is some crossover in information from track to track, each one offers something new to fans of the film. The first track, carried over from the laserdisc and the New Concorde version, features director Allan Arkush, writer Richard Whitley and producer Mike Finnel. From the Disney release comes a commentary with producer Roger Corman and actress Dey Young. Two new commentary tracks have also been included: one featuring Arkush and stars P.J. Soles and Clint Howard, and another featuring screenwriters Richard Whitley and Russ Dvonch.
The "Back to School" retrospective, first appearing on the Disney disc, has been included here, and it features recollections of the film from Arkush, Dey, Corman, Marky Ramone, Joe Dante (who receives "story by" credit and stepped in to direct the scene where P.J. Soles sings "Rock 'n' Roll High School" in the gym after Arkush nearly collapsed from exhaustion; the fact that I think it's one of the best scenes in the movie might have something to do with Dante's status as my favorite director) and others. This is probably the feature you should watch first, not just because it provides a good overview of the film's production and legacy but also because a lot of what you'll hear will be repeated elsewhere in the supplemental section. If you come to this last, it will be almost all review; watch it first, and the repeated parts will be spread out across the disc. Two new interview retrospectives have also been included: one with director Arkush and another with stars Dey Young, P.J. Soles and Vincent Van Patten.
Ported over from the film's first DVD release is a text introduction from Arkush, several radio and TV spots for the movie and some audio-only outtakes from the Ramones concert at the Roxy featured in the film. Also brought over from the New Concorde disc is an interview with Roger Corman conducted by critic and historian Leonard Maltin. It's relatively short, but Corman is such a soft-spoken, engaging guy who has such affection for the films in his catalogue that it's fun to watch.
The movie's original theatrical trailer (which is great, by the way) has also been included. The disc jacket states that a commentary for the trailer from director Eli Roth (courtesy of the website Trailers From Hell) is optional, but it's not listed anywhere on the menu. Rounding out the supplemental section are bonus trailers for two more Corman-produced titles: Suburbia and Grand Theft Auto, directed by Ron Howard. Here's hoping that one gets a Blu-ray release soon.
With a great HD transfer and a supplemental section that combines every previous release plus offers new content, Shout! Factory's Blu-ray of Rock 'n' Roll High School is definitely worth an upgrade for any fan of the film. It remains one of the best in Roger Corman's extensive filmography, as entertaining today as it was 30 years ago. The fun is infectious, the humor is juvenile and the music is loud. In short, it's perfect.
Gabba gabba hey.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Photo Gallery
* Audio Outtakes
* Radio and TV Ads