Released in the sweet spot for late 1970s early 1980s American high school comedies it is hard to see why 1979’s Rock ’n’ Roll High School is not held in higher regard. Directed by Allan Arkush (with acknowledged but uncredited ‘support’ from Joe Dante) the film is certainly no worse than its contemporaries including Animal House (1978), Porky’s (1981), Revenge of the Nerds (1984) and it even recalls the energy, in places, of George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) with further links felt in the casting of Clint Howard here, and Ron Howard there. It’s like a bizarro American Graffiti. While it includes many of the bawdy (to put it mildly) tropes of those films, as well as a strict, sure principal out to ruin teenage fun, it also subverts and critiques some of them in fascinating ways. One of my personal favourite touches is the inclusion of a put-upon freshman with a habit of Woody Allen-esque internal monologuing.
One of the reasons for the film’s slippage from consciousness, possibly, is the involvement of the Ramones, seemingly added into the mix due to their cult notoriety, in a move that recalls the tradition of casting rock ’n’ roll bands or artists as versions or parodies of themselves that goes back to the genre’s earliest days and finds its undoubted high point in Richard Lester’s peerless Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night from 1964. The Ramones are not as adept movie presences as the Fab Four and thankfully the film doesn’t ask them to do much other than ‘be themselves’ and for most of the running time they are a plot device as opposed to active participants. They are used symbolically to represent the dangers of rock ’n’ roll and are airlifted out of punk history. They are punks in the degenerate sense of the term and flagged as a danger akin to male artists before them dating back to Elvis. It is interesting to see the band placed in a rock ’n’ roll lineage given how synonymous they are with punk, and a moment where their Road to Ruin album is placed alongside Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, The Who’s Who’s Next and the Stones’ Sticky Fingers is telling in terms of how the filmmakers, already out of the Ramones’ generation, see the group.
It’s quaint in a way, that in 1979 punk is over and has been subsumed into a white male rock narrative. And yet, in another key way, the film doesn’t feel quaint or dated. The narrative tells the story of Riff Randell (P.J. Soles), the school’s rebel, on a quest to be a songwriter writing songs for the Ramones. The plot revolves around Riff’s quest to meet the band when they come to town for a show, in the hope they will like the song ‘Rock ’n’ Roll High School’, Riff has written for them. What marks the film out is that Riff is a young woman, a lone female presence in a litany of testosterone driven high school movies of the era with only Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) feeling like it is interested in female characters to the same degree. The character of Riff is portrayed as a fan, with a deep obsession with the Ramones (and Joey in particular), but unlike so many portrayals of female fandom the film doesn’t patronise Riff, it celebrates and revels in her fandom. Her love of the music and the artists is seen as valid and her desire to write songs for her heroes taken seriously, not least by the band themselves. It’s invigorating.
When the band show up, the film engages with them as a live act wholeheartedly. The ‘home town’ show, which includes a delightful call back gag featuring a gigantic mouse and some headphones, was shot at Los Angeles’ Roxy venue and captures the band in exhilarating form. The performance of ‘Pinhead’ with its ‘Gabba Gabba Hey’ catchphrase refrain is particularly special. Elsewhere, in a dream sequence where the band visit Riff’s home (including her bedroom and shower) Joey serenades her with the charming awkwardness that made him an unusual sex symbol and pin up. There are gags that recall the Zucker brothers – including a delivery of milk to a camped out, queuing Riff, a brilliant soundtrack that showcases Ramones classics including ‘Sheena is a Punk Rocker’ and ‘I Wanna be Sedated’ alongside choice cuts from Devo, Nick Lowe, Wings and the MC5, surreal interludes and lyrics presented on screen. It’s a film with a strange, messy amalgamation of ideas and a youthful and defiant energy. Much like the band at the heart of a film that has clearly been cobbled around them.
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is now available to buy from 101 Films.