Monday, November 24, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Rock 'n' Roll High School" (1979)

Like the band it features/fellates, The Ramones, "Rock 'n' Roll High School" managed to achieve cultural iconography without ever enjoying the mainstream success that usually accompanies it.

The Ramones, now generally regarded as one of the most influential punk banks of the 1970s, only had one gold record: a compilation of hits. The 1979 movie, a product of the house of low-budget schlockmeister Roger Corman, never made any big waves at the box office, but like many of his cinematic progeny found popularity at midnight movie showings and on video.

It had a budget of $200,000, which is still only about $650,000 in today's dollars, and has since made that back many times over.

It's a fun, frothy, dim-witted teenage romp assembled along the usual lines of the familiar vibrant youth vs. stodgy grownups theme: kids just want to dance and party, and teachers/administrators/authority figures are joyless drones enforcing the arbitrary dull routine of The Man.

Corman favorite Mary Woronov as Miss Evelyn Togar, the iron maiden of a new principal looking to impose order at Vince Lombardi High, has film counterparts in Dean Wormer from "Animal House," Rev. Moore from "Footloose" and countless others. As is often the case with females in charge, there's also a heavy accent of sexual domination. Because women in power are scary, y'know.

In the grand tradition of high school movies, most of the cast were deep into their 20s and, in the case of star P.J. Soles, bumping up hard against 30. I feel compelled to point out that Woronov was only a few years older than the supposed teens her character supervised. Clint Howard as Eaglebauer, resident student head of black market activities, was barely turned 20 but looked older than everybody else.

Soles plays Riff Randell -- one of the all-time great movie character names -- who is the head of the school's rock 'n' rollers and the Ramones' #1 fan. The story thread, such as it is, is that Riff has written a new song that she wants the band to play, which is the Ramones' real song and the title of this film. Togar takes away her tickets, but Riff conspires to get into the concert anyway and meet her heroes. Soles even gets to perform her own version of the song in a gym class routine.

Like untold starlets before her, Soles' career arc is a sad if all too common tale. She had her first role in "Carrie," was Michael Myers' topless victim in the original "Halloween," enjoyed a starring role in "Rock 'n' Roll High School," had small but memorable parts in "Breaking Away," "Private Benjamin" and "Stripes," and seemed to be on her way to stardom until ... she more or less disappeared. In 2004 a band even titled their album, "Whatever Happened to P.J. Soles?"

That's not really fair, as if you look at her profile Soles has actually stayed pretty consistently busy on TV and film for the past 35 years. But she was a vibrant, puckish presence in her early films, especially so in "Rock 'n' Roll High School." Her Riff is brimming with insouciance and defiance, a headstrong party girl who fought the power because the power sucked, and, well, because it was fun.

With her neon-colored Chuck Taylors bopping and hips swiveling admirably in the best sort of white girl proto-twerk, Soles rocked with flair and confidence.

The secondary story involves Riff's best friend, Kate Rambeau (Dey Young), the school genius/nerd who yearns to be rid of her virginity. She's a classic high school movie ugly duckling, in that she's an obviously beautiful girl who wears pulled-back hair, frumpy clothes and oversized, face-swallowing glasses.

Kate secretly adores Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten, son of Dick), captain of the football team and a total dreamboat, but who can't find anything to talk to girls about except the weather. He in turn pines for Riff, but is steered by Eaglebauer's hook-up service -- guaranteed or your money back! -- to Kate.

The Ramones show up about one-third of the way through, and probably close to 50% of the total movie is devoted to the playing of their songs. As a Ramones fan, I enjoyed these scenes even as I realized they existed mostly to pump up the movie's run time into the acceptable 90-ish minute range.

Joey Ramone and his erstwhile brothers can't act their way out of a paper bag, gumming their lines as if reading them for the very first time. Finally, Snoop Dogg has a challenger for the title of worst musician-to-movie-star transition.

Paul Bartel has a fun, tidy role as Mr. McGree, the snooty classical music teacher who disdains the Ramones until he stumbles into the concert and becomes a tweed-wearing punk rock devotee. Don Steele, a real-life successful DJ, moonlighted as an actor in Corman films and shows up here as Screamin' Steve Stevens, a local radio personality who sort of acts as the film's emcee and Greek chorus.

The movie's a hoot in a dumb sort of way, with everything played very cheesy and goofy. Jokes hit and miss, but come at such a furious pace the duds sink fast and are forgotten. Miss Togar's chief toadies are a pair of hall monitors who are fat and unattractive and, for some reason, wear Boy Scout-ish outfits complete with kerchiefs. Their favorite duty is performing body searches on female students.

As a cultural artifact, perhaps the most notable thing about "Rock 'n' Roll High School" is its tameness. It was rated PG, and aside from a few scenes of characters toking up doobies and one guy snorting coke, there really isn't much sex and drugs. Soles briefly appears topless, but only from behind, getting into her shower during a dream sequence, where she discovers the Ramones guitarist flailing away. There's also a super-short snippet of a co-ed shower taking place during the big final party sequence, but everyone's covered in bubbles up to their shoulders.

I think Corman and his stand-in filmmakers -- director Allan Arkush, screenwriters Richard Whitley, Russ Dvonch and Joseph McBride -- were just looking for a quickie pop music comedy to lure in the kiddies who bought tickets to "Grease" and snuck into "Animal House." And that's what they got. (Joe Dante, one of many graduates of Corman's unofficial film school, assisted with the story and direction.)

Supposedly the original title for the project was "Disco High," but polyester suits and synthesized beats were already waning by '79, so they wisely went with the hipper, harsher new sound of the day.

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