Judge Bill Gibron doesn't want to be a pinhead no more, he just wants film fans to go for this amazing musical memento of the Ramones' rock-and-roll legacy.
That was a good one, Mr. McGree!
Poor Ramones. You never got the respect you so rightly deserved. You languished away in the darkest days of the music business, battling that dunderhead disco for just the smallest snatch of pop culture consideration, then saw your fortunes fade as New Wave waxed your retro rock hinny. By the time Green Day and Fall Out Boy were stealing your strategy, turning punk into pop to make boodles of greenbacks, you were imploding internally, destined to break up just as your old school skyrocket was prepped for the launching pad. Then, to make matters worse, you had to go and die—first the iconic Joey, then the drugged-out DeeDee, and finally the talented taskmaster Johnny. Granted, you managed to find yourself in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just after your lead singer left this earth, but a mere decade after your disbanding, you live on as myth more than musicians. Case in point: Rock and Roll High School. This crazy comedy from producer Roger Corman and director Allan Arkush stands as the sole significant cinematic statement of your time as ersatz trendsetters. Luckily, it's one of the great schlock classics of all time, a brazen B-movie that lets you do what you do best—simply be Ramones.
Facts of the Case
Things are so out of hand at Vince Lombardi High School that the administration feels pressured to make a change of principal. So it's out with the insane old coot who requires the aid of some nice young men in clean white coats, and in with Ms. Evelyn Togar (Mary Woronov, Eating Raoul), a dime-store despot with antiquated ideas about discipline and respect. First on her hit list—punk rock queen Riff Randell (P.J. Soles, Halloween). This lunchtime rabble-rouser loves to play her favorite Ramones records over the loudspeaker for the entire campus to enjoy. She's usually joined by Kate Rambeau (Dey Young, The Rat Pack), an honor student with the hots for football star Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten, Hell Night). As Togar begins her reign of terror, Kate consults Vince Lombardi High's notorious backdoor deal broker, Eaglebauer (Clint Howard, Evilspeak) about a date with Tom. When approached, the quarterback admits a thing for Riff. As the romantic angles are ironed out, the student body discovers that Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, and Marky are about to play a concert in town. While they long to see their favorite freaks in action, Riff just wants to meet the boys. See, she's a songwriter, and believes her latest opus, Rock and Roll High School will be perfect for the band's three-chord repertoire.
It's incredibly corny. It features actors several years out of adolescence doing the whole high-school kiddie thang. It lunges headlong into impossibly exciting musical moments, and even features a Joe Dante-directed gymnasium set piece featuring lots of female flesh encased in curve-exploiting spandex. Yet it never makes the Top Ten list of great cinematic treasures—go figure. For fans of the greatest proto-punk band in the world—the one and only Ramones—Rock and Roll High School remains an unbelievable benchmark. It's a probable pinnacle in the history of one of music's most criminally overlooked groups. With each of their first four albums a genuine work of anarchic art and an influential reach that circumnavigated the globe (just ask the Clash or the Sex Pistols where they'd be without the bruddah's slash-and-burn bop), these would-be superstars became barely-breaking-even journeymen. Touring relentlessly to keep their foreign fans happy, the quartet found their mother country mocking them as sonic simpletons. It was only decades later, when analog turned to digital and grunge reinvigorated the electrified guitar that the road-weary foursome found a fan base ready to embrace their original garage pop. Sad thing is, the Ramones were beaten down and broken. They would enjoy their minor resurrection, but the years had hollowed out the rest of their resolve. They weren't just shadows of their former selves—they had been converted into a caricature of their previous trailblazing bravado.
So it's with a semi-heavy heart that a fan approaches the band's one and only appearance on the big screen. As for the film itself, Rock and Roll High School is a glorified goof, a movie loaded with the kind of creaky comedy that your grandfather would have relished in rib-tickling delight. What began as a classic Roger Corman merchandising brainstorm (he originally wanted to call it Disco High and feature a guaranteed "get up and boogie" soundtrack) was slowly switched over into a piece of perfect punk rock retardation. From the stellar casting to the kinetic concert material, filmmaker Allan Arkush (with some help from the rest of the New World Pictures crew) saw a chance to champion his favorite form of sonic boom and really ran with it. The combination of old-fashioned juvenile delinquency drama peppered with the emerging idea of self-referential campiness created an entertainment anomaly—a movie that shouldn't work but ends up doing so brilliantly and unabashedly. Toss in a treasure trove of Ramones classics (including "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Pinhead," and the title track) and you've got the makings of a major misguided classic. Not a closed-off cult film, mind you, but an honest-to-goodness mainstream mockfest.
Granted, Arkush couldn't do it without a stellar set of actors to support his rail-thin rock gods, and every single member of his outstanding cast deliver in demented spades. Among the major players, Clint Howard is a standout. Always more approachable than his Oscar-winning sibling, the former kickass kidvid star (hey, Ronnie doesn't have a Star Trek credit to his name now, does he?) was at an amiable awkward stage when Rock and Roll High School came along. Wanting to branch out and test his thespian tendencies beyond the familial fold, his terrific turn as Eaglebauer would be remembered as much for his collection of memorable lines (he's like a adolescent carnival barker gone bonkers) as a few stellar visual gags (Howard is brilliant when deconstructing the removal of a brassiere from the female form). Along with PJ Soles, who more or less owns the film's subtle sexual center as Riff Randell, Howard helps keep many of Rock and Roll High School's more tenuous tendencies afloat. As for Soles, she represents the perfect amalgamation of adolescent lust—cool yet approachable, rebellious yet realistic. She's the leader of the pack and the outsider looking in. Perched alongside the purposefully nerdy Dee Young, she becomes the good-natured groupie, the link between the mundane and the music.
In addition, Mary Woronov milks the role of Evelyn Togar for all she can, imparting it with a sense of sinister seriousness that makes her the perfect villain. There are many times throughout the course of Rock and Roll High School when we want to see this prissy principal eat her smug, stuffy words. Having the Ramones on hand to aid in the retribution represents stellar cinematic symmetry. It elevates them to the level of social symbols, something their time in the career trenches couldn't guarantee. On a final note, it is important to praise Vincent Van Patten. More or less given the most thankless role in the film (discernible dork, unlucky in love, clueless to the culture around him), he turns his leading-man loser into a likeable sort of stooge. We can sympathize with his fading personal fortunes because, in his struggles, we see a little of our own angst shining through. Thanks to Arkush's no nonsense approach to directing—he's not out to make a certain statement, just a damn fine film—and a script overloaded with purposeful and inadvertent hilarity, we end up with something that stands up over repeated viewings and the passage of time. Unless you are The Beatles, your onscreen efforts are usually less than memorable (say hello, Herman's Hermits). But because Rock and Roll High School is a comedy first, a musical memento second, its filmic foundation is much, much firmer.
In the end, it's hard to argue with the movie's many bright spots. Indeed, it's a shame that the Ramones were such bad actors. Many of the scenes planned for the band had to be shaved since the boys had a hard time delivering even the simplest sentence coherently. Similarly, there is a great deal of historical happenstance involved with the film's formation. Originally, such lyrical luminaries as Todd Rundgren, Cheap Trick, Devo, and Van Halen were considered for the pivotal role of rock act, and any one of those choices would have changed the dynamic of the movie irreparably. They wouldn't have been bad; they just wouldn't have been the Ramones. In the seminal punk rock rejects, Arkush found an unfettered sense of solemnity, an unapologetically pure love of music and the making of same. For all their leather and leering, the Ramones were basically bubblegum, a savvy combination of '50s rockabilly basics with Phil Spector-esque lines and melody. Toss in a buzzsaw guitar, some triphammer drumming, and enough attitude to topple the rest of the pretenders to the rock-and-roll throne and you've got the reason behind the Ramones' lasting impact—and their mediocre mainstream fortunes. Certainly, a myriad of postmodern artists owe their very existence to this fiery foursome. But had they survived to see the new millennium, they'd still be a tough act to embrace. That's just the way they are. That's why they're Ramones.
Going to the digital well once again, this latest DVD version of the title is a delightful double—or perhaps quadruple—dip. Retaining some material from differing releases and adding a few stellar supplements of its own, this package preserves both the spirit and the substance of the movie. On the technical side, there is only one minor misgiving. Near the beginning of the film, when Tom sees Riff Randell, there used to be a line there (Tom: "I need to get laid"). It has been removed, and none of the commentaries or documentaries explains why. Otherwise, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image looks incredible—clean and crisp and overloaded with color. Granted, Rock and Roll High School was made more than 25 years ago, but age has not dampened the optical aspects of this release. Similarly, the film retains its original Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mix. While audio fans may shudder at the thought of a sonic situation not preening with multi-channel choices, but the power in the Ramones onstage performance helps to overcome the lack of true spatial ambiance. Otherwise, the dialogue is discernible and the score is sensational.
As for the rest of the release, we are treated to a pair of informative audio commentaries. First up is an old track from director Arkush, producer Michael Finnell, and screenwriter Richard Whitley. As you would expect, it's a hilarious, homespun breakdown of the movie, its making, and the particular problems of working with some very inarticulate musicians. Next up is a new discussion, featuring Corman and actress Dee Young. This is more of a reminiscence than a revelatory look at the production. Still, Young does dish a little dirt, and Corman offers his typical insider issues about financing, distribution, and marketing. It stands as an excellent supplement to the other alternate narrative. Also ported over from previous versions of the DVD are 15 minutes of outtakes from the Ramones' live performance (awesome), a collection of original radio ads (fun), and the original trailer (cool). Last but not least, a new documentary entitled "Back to School: A Retrospective" is featured. While Mr. Van Patten and Ms. Soles are MIA, the rest of the cast steps up to discuss the film, its lasting appeal, and the impact on their careers. It's a nice little overview of the entire Rock and Roll High School phenomenon—both then and now.
While it may seem cruel to dismiss the Ramones as a forgotten force in the mid-'70s revival of rock's fortunes, it's clear that there is still an ongoing battle between relevance and reality when it comes to the band. Their genial, joyful noise can be heard in everything from kids' films to car commercials, and the group's four-piece dynamic has been mastered and repeated by a bunch of underlings still in short pants when Joey passed on to the great CBGB's in the sky. Still, as a perfectly rendered and expertly captured snapshot of the band at their absolute best, a resounding reminder that music can be more than about the look, the download, the video, or the marketing, Rock and Roll High School remains timeless. It invokes its era perfectly and does a decent job of brushing your funny bone along the way. Much like the way Rude Boy redefined the Clash or the Great Rock and Roll Swindle stagnated the Sex Pistols, the Ramones live or die by the way they were depicted in this film. Thankfully, director Allan Arkush was a true fan, delivering the definite image that the group will be remembered by—defiant onstage, dundering off. When combined with their recorded output, that's not a band musical memory.
Not guilty. Rock and Roll High School is an excellent slice of schlock and the Ramones redeem it over and over again. Case closed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Buena Vista
• Commentary by Executive Producer Roger Corman and Actress Dey Young
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