Thursday, November 11, 2010

Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979)

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am in love. The object of my affection: the 1979 cult comedy Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. I never saw it before last Friday night, and now I want to know where it’s been all my life. My tastes usually tend towards the morbid and violent, but this little gem won my heart with its unstoppable energy and charm. It’s a work of pure joy.

First of all, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School = The Ramones. If you loath and despise that band, your body will violently reject this movie. That said, I was no Ramones fan before seeing Rock ‘n’Roll High School (henceforth called R-n-R High, because I’m lazy). I knew a few hits (“Blitzkrieg Bob,” “I Wanna Be Sedated,” etc.) but they were just a bit too upbeat, too pop for my tastes. I preferred the more bitter, venous Dead Boys, the Misfits, or 45 Grave. But R-n-R High converted me. The featured Ramones tunes (at least 10, and many played in person), are infectious toe-tapping anthems glorying youth, stupidity, and romance. In the context of this ditzy, mildly-unwholesome comedy, these two-minute blasts of hormonal energy suddenly make sense.

Like the Beatles did before them, the Ramones play themselves in R-n-R High. Can they act? No, they can’t. But they have a very…erm…unique screen presence. Joey looks like a shambling, rail-thin giant, screeching his lines in a raspy monotone. And Dee Dee…yeesh. They’re just a kick to watch. (Can you imagine the Sex Pistols leading the movie instead? They'd need a camera with a windshield wiper, for all those punk rock loogies.)

If R-n-R High was all Ramones, all the time, it could still merit a solid 3 out of 5. But R-n-R High offers more than this quartet of talented circus rats. The rest of the cast is pure dynamite. Let’s meet the staff and students of Vince Lombardi High, the titular educational institution. First, there’s Riff Randell, played by professional horror-victim PJ Soles (Halloween, Carrie). This is the first film I’ve seen where she isn’t killed, and perhaps the first where I didn’t want her to be. Riff is a teenage songwriter, troublemaker, and full-time Ramones fanatic. Her one ambition is to her idols her compositions, including the film’s titular theme song. (Titular. I just love that word for some reason.) As usual, PJ is perkier than 10 Audrey Hepburns in a sack of coffee beans, and while some may find her unrestrained bounciness annoying, I think she’s a hoot.

Riff’s best friend is Kate Rambeaux, a mousy yet gorgeous nuclear physics hobbyist. (There’s one in every high school, right?) Kate is a good girl who’d rather spend a quiet evening splitting protons than go out dancing. Her one vice is her hankering for Tom Roberts, the school’s prize jock. Tom barely notices Kate, which is frankly baffling. Even with her dowdy clothes and inch-thick glasses, Kate (played by Dey Young) is utterly adorable. At one point Riff makes her over to attend a Ramones gig: you could say that She-Nerd is a punk rocker now!

(The Pun Police breaks in and kicks my witty ass.)

Kate wants Tom, but Tom (our awkward, virginal football star—there’s one in every school, right?) has the hots for Riff. So he sees his fairy godfather, Eaglebauer (Clint Howard), the school’s resident matchmaker and vice king. And such vices! In Class of 1984, Peter Stegman controlled the school’s drug and prostitution rackets. In addition to dating help, Eaglebauer deals in fake IDs, test answers, and hall passes. Yes, hall passes. (If Eaglebauer packs heat, it’s a slingshot and a few pebbles.) Still, he has a pretty plush office: an expansive, well-appointed stall in a reefer-smogged bathroom. He even has a secretary. Stegman just had a couple of leg-breakers and a ready supply of angel dust. Eaglebauer is a cool character with a cool name (in fact, everyone here has a name, except for Tom), and knows good business when he sees it: right after setting up Tom with Riff, he drafts a similar deal with Kate, for Tom. Hi-jinks ensue.

R-n-R High is a lovable caricature of teenage rebellion. But what good is rebellion without an appropriately sinister authority figure? Enter Vince Lombardi High’s new principal: the iron-fisted Miss Togar, played by Mary Woronov (not to be confused with Aileen Wuornos). Prim, edgy, and sporting a bizarre series of ‘50s hairdos, Woronov nevertheless radiates a heatwave of eroticism. Her rigorous, authoritarian venom make her a perfect killjoy-in-chief. She could be the warden in women’s prison film, feeling up wayward inmates (preferably Laura Gemser) and caning the tushes of miscreants. She’s truly a worthy target for a student-led coup. Yet she’s also really funny and delivers some of the movie’s best lines. I can see why her bumbling Hall Monitor toadies have the hots for her.

The students have one ally among the school staff: music teacher Mr. McGree (Paul Bartel, who looks like a red-head Paul Giamatti). McGree is R-n-R High’s take on the Beach Party anthropologist, a clueless yet lovable square. A logic-driven intellectual, he questions Togar’s increasingly paranoid control. Although comically unhip, he eventually embraces the Ramones’ raucous self-expression, even declaring them “Beethovens of our time.” (I disagree, but I’d still listen to them over any of our commonly-accepted modern Beethovens: The Who, Pink Floyd, whatever…)

I didn’t enjoy high school. It was like Carrie’s high school if Carrie’s mom ran the place. So, naturally, I spent lots of time fantasizing about what high school could be. On one hand, you have scholastic hell as portrayed in Class of 1984. R-n-R High is the exact opposite end of the spectrum. Even in the iron grip of Togar’s regime, Vince Lombardi High seems like a nice place to be. The students are united by their love of rock-n-roll and hatred of Togar. There’s no cliques, no back-stabbing, and no bullying. (The only exception is the scrawny, put-upon freshman—apparently the only one in the school—who’s clearly one shower prank away from becoming the Slaughter High killer.)

Even so, the escalating student/staff tensions and ensuing riot is a perfect depiction of a common student fantasy: your favorite band shows up, you trash the place, and finally YOU IMMOLATE THE JOINT! What kid hasn’t dreamed about demolishing his school? This display of schoolyard anarchy (dirt-biking in the hallway, chain-sawing report cards, bombarding lunch-ladies with cafeteria slop) should ring true to any high school graduate/escapee.

(Fun fact—the film’s producer, the legendary Roger Corman, originally conceived of R-n-R High as “Disco High.” Seriously. How can you blow up a school to disco music? “Disco High” could only have ended with a school-wide coke orgy. I’ll stick with the arson, thank you!)

R-n-R High—with its mix of loud music, bad behavior, and Bullwinkle-worthy puns—is officially on my happy list. Like Fifth Element, Female Trouble, and Wallace and Grommet, I know this film can light up the gloomiest of my evenings. Do ya wanna dance? Don’t wanna be a pinhead no more? Enroll in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.

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