Late in the summer of 1979 Allan Arkush dropped Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. The film is centered around a group of high school kids who not only have to deal with normal high school drama like trying to get laid, trying to find somewhere to smoke, and figuring out new and exciting ways to stick it to the man (in their case, the principal), they also have to figure out how they’re going to make it to the Ramones concert!
This film may have been released in 1979 but, it was set in 1980 and I didn’t see it until around 1999, and it’s currently 2019, making this year the 40th anniversary of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School! I’m here to make sure this buried treasures rises to the top once more. While the film was well received initially and has an 80% Rotten Tomatoes score, it’s not a movie that’s very well-known to young people, and as far as I can tell, people in general anymore. Enough background, I want to talk about all the hilarious and over the top things about this movie that have made it so easily stand the test of time, and why you should go watch it, right now. So let’s break it down.
The clear antagonist Principal Togar portrayed as a near unstoppable evil by the wonderful Mary Woronov, unites the audience immediately, with her devilishly red lips, mistreatment of tiny mice, and hatred for all things Rock and Roll, we all want to see her demise. I wouldn’t hate to own her “Rock-o-meter” though, that contraption is amazing. When she rips up Riffs Ramones tickets though, she’s no longer mildly irritating, she’s pure evil, and must be destroyed by any means necessary. Even though the tickets were only ten bucks (which made my jaw hit the floor the first time I watched the film), it’s the principle of the matter. Then we have hall monitors. Evil, moronic, dweeby, minions from hell. The hall monitors and Principal Togar make a perfect trio of dastardly characters that make the audience cheer for our goofy ass protagonists.
This films adorably naive protagonists can sometimes be eye-roll inducing but are a kind portrayal of a lot of high school kids that I remember. Riff Randle (P.J. Soles) and Kate Rambeau (Dey Young) are best friends from different sides of the high school social spectrum but have clearly endured the years and somehow remained friends. Riff is obsessed with seeing the Ramones in concert and getting the songs she’s written for the band to them. Kate is obsessed with getting a date with the jock weatherman Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten). Together throughout the film, they both do indeed see their dreams come to fruition, but at the cost of Principal Togar enacting her “Final Solution” which is having all the kids parents of Vince Lombardi High School, bring the kids records to the courtyard and then setting them on fire. This does not go over well with the kids. Let me be totally clear. If any of my friends drunkenly touch one of my records at a get together without explicit permission, I give them a damn stern talking to. If I were a teenager, and I saw someone setting fire to my music collection, I without a doubt would destroy everything in my path, and I wouldn’t even need the Ramones assistance. The Ramones do show up though to Vince Lombardi school, after Riff gives them her songs they show up to make good on their promise to come visit Riff and her extremely hip music teacher. When the Ramones show up, you know shit is about to get real.
Besides the amazing characters in the film, and how easy it is for kids (and adults looking back fondly on how much crap they had to endure in high school) to relate to rebellious teens who just want to listen to their music, go to class, smoke some weed, and not have their childhood ran by Nazi-esque child handlers who treat them like cattle. The film stands the test of time because it’s over the top humor. Some stand out scenes to me include, Kate having to climb that insane rope in gym class. Please, please, I’m begging you, readers that were in high school in the ’70s and ’80s, did you guys actually have to climb that thing? I asked my mom who was legitimately in high school in 1979 and she said that she never had to climb a rope like that (albeit she skipped most of her freshman year, probably to go to Ramones concerts). If my gym teacher would have dared asked me to climb that thing I would have chucked one of my combat boots at his head. It seems comically unsafe, but I don’t have a PhD in gym class.
Next we have Eaglebaurer. While Clint Howard wasn’t the initial choice for the character, I am beyond grateful that he received the part because he plays it impeccably. Having what amounts to a baller guidance counselor that holds court in the boys John is amazing. The fact that Toms sexual emergency is a “code 9” makes me intensely curious about what all the other codes are. The scene where Eaglebaurer is trying to train Tom on how to take someone’s bra off with Kate, I can’t imagine that entire scene being filmed, produced, and released into today’s market because people would just flip out, sadly. The movie all together is an iconic still frame of the age. It isn’t a historical piece, but it does preserve some bits of history. It’s not a dramatic Oscar nominee, but it’s better than quite a few movies I’ve seen take home that title. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School isn’t a lot of things, but it’s so much more than just a goofy rock comedy. The mere fact that 40 years after it’s release, I can show it to my best friend (who has heard the Ramones due to me, but never cared too much for their music) can watch it, and laugh until she cries says a lot. You don’t have to be an ’80s or Ramones aficionado to appreciate the film, you just need have an appreciation for the absurdity of high school and trying to grow up.
I can’t write this article and not mention the involvement of the Ramones. I’ve actually always been a huge fan of their music, and when my mom introduced me to this movie, I damn near had a nerd induced heart attack. I saw P.J. Soles from Halloween and flipped out, then I saw the Ramones and had a “Beatle-Mania” type convulsion. The scene where Riff smokes some green and then daydreams about them being in her room singing “I Want you Around” hits so close to home with the goofy daydreams I used to have when I was that age that it’s unnerving. Then the band shows up to Vince Lombardi High to help destroy the school! It’s honestly every music nerds dream. I no joke at all, used to daydream about Nine Inch Nails showing up in my Spanish class to kidnap me and take me on tour with them so I could do their concert photography…childhood dreams die-hard.
After we’ve broken this movie down and pulled apart what makes it—in my eyes—a buried treasure, I’d love to know what you think about it. Did you watch it when it was initially released? Did you see it years later as a teen like I did? Or are you about to go watch it because this article has made you question cinematic reality? Either way, drop me a line and let me know what you think of the film in all of its glorious absurdity.
Odd notes from the movie
- The Crawdaddy magazine Riff is reading while waiting for tickets to go on sale was a real publication, it was actually the first real magazine publication that took Rock music seriously and wanted to talk about it to fans. Their final print was oddly enough published the year Rock ‘n’ Roll High School came out.
- Apparently, the production manager of this film was pretty stingy, so instead of hiring extras, he let journalists come on the set and be extras, that may be stingy, but is damn smart in my opinion.
- During the “Ear Mail” scene you can see a poster recruiting people for “The People’s Temple” offering up free Kool-Aid…which I didn’t notice until I watched it while writing this article.
- The first time I saw the film, when Riff and Kate are walking into the concert and Riff starts talking about how cool it is that all of the Ramones were brothers, my mother heard me audibly whisper “bullshit” and gave me a deep death stare before saying “You’re right, but don’t say bullshit.”