I just read a book, I Want You Around: The Ramones and the Making of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, by Stephen B. Armstrong, which prompted yet another viewing of one of my favorite movies. I'm surprised I never wrote anything about it before, so here goes.
Sometimes I'll say of a movie that I respect it more than I like it, that I congratulate it for carrying out its intentions while admitting the movie isn't for me. Rock 'n' Roll High School is a bit like the opposite of that. Oh, after reading Armstrong's book, I think it's remarkable that the vision of Allan Arkush et al made it as close to the final product as could be. Arkush battled against people who didn't want the film to be made (Roger Corman kept asking Arkush to limit the scenes with The Ramones). The budget was low, the Ramones were amateur actors ... but Rock 'n' Roll High School has become a cult classic over the years, one I can watch again and again.
I love the relationship between the two female leads, #1 Ramones fan Riff Randell (P.J. Soles) and science geek Kate Rambeau (Dey Young). The camaraderie between the two actresses is beautiful. Most of the movie is cartoonish, but Riff and Kate have some authentic moments between them. The cast is full of the kinds of actors you need to establish your cult credentials, and they are all good: Clint Howard, Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, the immortal Dick Miller, Don Steele, Grady Sutton, and two young women, Chris Summa and Marla Rosenfield, who won the hearts of many young boys but then seemed to disappear.
There are two things that separate Rock 'n' Roll High School from other teen-rebellion comedies. The most obvious is The Ramones. To be honest, the first part of the film drags a bit, with a lot of hit-or-miss schtick. But when The Ramones finally turn up ... well, it's one of my all-time favorite movie scenes:
The band had misgivings about being in the movie, and had turned down other offers to be in films, feeling that rock bands were always shown to be stupid. But here, they are charismatic, helped by the lovely fantasy of the film that The Ramones are like the biggest band in the world. And if they gave Oscars for Best Performance by an Extra, I'd say give one each to those two girls strangling each other in line.
The other thing that makes this movie different is the ending. We learn in Armstrong's book that from the beginning, it was intended that the movie would end with the teens blowing up the school. In the 50s rock movies from which Rock 'n' Roll High School draws, the ending usually comes when the parents realize their kids are OK, the music is OK, everything is OK. That's not how this one ends:
Maybe you hate to hate high school to really appreciate that ending.
So yeah, some of the jokes are sophomoric at best, things don't really pick up until The Ramones show up ... nobody ever said this is a great movie. But I love it, just the same.