ock ‘n’ Roll High School was Allan Arkush’s first solo outing as a director after he co-directed the wildly inventive satire on low-budget filmmaking Hollywood Boulevard with Joe Dante. Arkush is a huge lover of rock ‘n’ roll, but initially the film’s producer, Roger Corman, wanted to capitalize on the disco craze. Eventually Arkush convinced him if you were going to make a high-school movie where they blow the school up, it needs to be rock ‘n’ roll.
Arkush basically wanted to do a mishmash of two of his favourite films, Lindsay Anderson’s If… and Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night. Interestingly, when Todd Rundgren was briefly considered as the musical star of the film, he suggested something more political like If… —without realizing that it was one of the main inspirations for the film. Eventually it was it was a toss-up between the Ramones and Cheap Trick. Arkush and Corman settled on the Ramones… they were cheaper, and for Corman that was always a plus.
P.J. Soles stars as the unbelievably bubbly Riff Randell, “rock ‘n’ roller,” who is the Ramones biggest fan and has the biggest crush on Joey Ramone. Riff has a song she wants to present to the Ramones (the film’s title song), and waits in line for three days to get tickets for their show. She is facing opposition from the fascistic Principal Togar, who is played with gleeful sadism by cult actress and former dancer from The Velvet Underground Mary Woronov. P.J., the Ramones, and other students soon combine forces to overthrow the school after Togar and some parents try to ban that dangerous rock ‘n’ roll!
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School really ushered in a new kind of teen movie, injecting the genre with a sense of surrealistic humour that hadn’t been seen before in these kinds of films. Heathers probably wouldn’t exist without Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, because it showed you could have all this crazy humour and go to places that previously few teen movies had been willing to go. Riff Randell is also much more well-rounded female character than most teen movies of the era featured, which is probably why the film has lasted so long. The film shows her as this cunning young woman who uses her intelligence to beat the powers that be, and her desire is to be a creative collaborator with the Ramones instead of just Joey’s girlfriend, which she actually doesn’t end up being in the end anyway.
The music is, of course, great. It’s the Ramones when they were still really good, coming right after Tommy left to focus on managing the band and producing the Road to Ruin album. The “Do You Wanna Dance?” sequence remains one of the all-time greats of movie musicals. Arkush also fit in every song with “school” in it that he possibly could, including the MC5’s “High School,” Chuck Berry’s “School Days,” and of course Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out.” If the film had been made six years earlier it probably would’ve starred Alice Cooper. Arkush pretty much got carte blanche to use whatever Sire Records and to a lesser extent Warner Bros. owned, so he used Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac and a bunch of Brian Eno for just the incidental music! Devo even has a song in there—they were briefly considered as the band for the film, but it was decided they had too much of their own concept. Arkush even got an unused song that Paul McCartney wrote for the Warren Beatty film Heaven Can Wait for $500, on the condition that McCartney didn’t get a screen credit.
The concert sequence with the Ramones is now the stuff of punk-rock lore. Darby Crash and Lorna Doom of L.A. punk band The Germs are very prominent in the front row, and according to Arkush, members of the Bags, the Alley Cats, the Circle Jerks, and probably countless other bands were in the audience. To cut corners and actually afford to film the sequence, they sold tickets to the concert—and after the Ramones went through the same six songs over and over, the punks got bored and a new group was ushered in. The film’s preview was saved, because it played on the far side of Hollywood Boulevard. Much of the original L.A. punk scene lived around the corner in these run-down apartments. When they heard a music film was previewing, they came along, and it played like gangbusters.
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School remains a cult classic—and it will stand the test of time, because who doesn’t dream of blowing up their high school? The film is littered with great supporting turns from the Corman production regulars, like Paul Bartel, Dick Miller and Clint Howard. Its combination of surreal humour, a well-written protagonist, and some of the best footage of the Ramones ever shot makes it one of the most unique and influential teen films ever made. It also boasts the only writing credit Joe Dante has ever had on a film, with a story by him and Arkush. Dante also stepped in for an exhausted Arkush during the last few days of production to shoot the big gym sequence where Riff performs the title track. Fans of the film should also seek out Arkush’s Shake, Rattle and Rock!, which serves as quasi-prequel with some returning cast members!
The release from 101 Films is essentially a port of the most recent Shout Factory Blu-Ray. It has four commentary tracks; an excellent feature-length making-of documentary; an older featurette that features Marky Ramone (the only surviving “official” Ramone, a.k.a. the ones who get the T-shirt money); a cast reunion interview featuring P.J. Soles, Vincent Van Patten and Dey Young; an old interview with Roger Corman done by Leonard Maltin, and another interview with Arkush. The rest of the disc extras include outtake audio from the concerts, TV and radio spots, and the film’s theatrical trailer. This release also adds an exclusive booklet with essays from Jon Towlson and Jimmy Martin.
Watch below my wide ranging long-form interview with Allan Arkush!