"Rock 'n' Roll High School" is a movie that exists in its own world. Yes, it is a high school movie; but not just a high school movie, and certainly one that's unlike any other you've ever seen. It studies late 1970's youth at arm's length, closes in on certain individuals for deeper insight, and contains plenty of positive message-making in regards to this age group; but it also has exploding rats, creepy make-out sessions with blow-up sex dolls, scenes of freshmen being literally cooked from the shoulders down in a kitchen pot of boiling water, and an ending that involves a high school exploding into flames and ashes. The film, under the keen direction of Allan Arkush, is basically what happens when you take the high school comedy formula and mix it with the absurdity of an exploitation film and the distorted editing of a midnight movie. When you have Roger Corman as the producer, you come to expect such qualities. But still, Arkush has made a film that is somewhat of a sucker punch; you may expect zaniness from a Corman-produced production, but you most likely wouldn't expect...whatever this is. It's nearly indescribable as it is. But that's the appeal of it. There's something going on here that no other high school movie has successfully copied or even came close to understanding. It's all about attitude, style, and the music.
At Vince Lombardi High, the principals keep coming and going due to nervous breakdowns, and the students keep partying to the sounds of rock 'n' roll. Perhaps the biggest music buff in the entire school is Riff Randall (P.J. Soles of "Halloween" fame), a girl who absolutely adores The Ramones and can be seen blasting their recordings quite often. But her days of fame such as this are threatened by the arrival of the new principal, a Mrs. Togar (Mary Woronov); who hates rock 'n' roll with a burning passion. She has theorized that it makes students dumber. She argues her case by showing the effects that it has on science class mice. If the volume is too high, they tend to blow up. Just like that, into a puff of smoke. She shows this to the music and gym teachers of the school, and they are unconvinced. But she's not. If anyone is to be caught listening to rock 'n' roll on school grounds, their permanent records will be at stake.
The film is messy, all-over-the-place, but not for a single moment dull. There are many sub-plots, and each separate one is amusing in its own way. There's one where Riff's best friend Kate (Dey Young) tries finding young love with a jock named Tom Roberts (Vince Van Patten); although coincidentally they are both searching for the same thing and come to the same man for advice, a quirky fellow named Eaglebauer (Clint Howard). Another big part of the plot concerns Riff's determination to be first in line at the next local concert for The Ramones and personally give one of the band members - preferably her favorite of the three, Joey Ramone - original song lyrics that she has written and wants them to consider working into one of their songs. She camps out in front of the theater for days, and a hilarious scene reveals that she is not the only obsessed fan in town.
I remember the first time my dad got me into The Ramones. He had recently bought their "Best Of" compilation album - which is a good one indeed - and I was pretty much hooked from there. "Rock 'n' Roll High School" is damn delightful because it not only features some of the Ramones' best music but also the members playing fictional versions of themselves. I've always found their greatest hits to be profoundly entertaining to listen to, and the film does me one better by providing a visual companion to the music, and a worthy one too. It doesn't play like a music video, but it's a very musical film in the sense that some of the best scenes have music by The Ramones playing over the action on-screen. For many, it will evoke sweet memories; although I'm unsure of how those not familiar with the band going in will feel once they're out. Probably indifferent to the whole thing, really. But then again, the film could serve as a nice introduction to The Ramones and their epic, diverse body of work. I'll hope for the best. Either way, it's definitely worth seeing just to see it; because anything that can be dubbed a "Corman Cult Classic" is probably worth its weight in engagingly outrageous hijinks.
This is a film of wicked, consistent humor and flamboyant style. It's definitely one of those "mood movies" - meaning that you really have to be in the moment (if you know what I mean) to truly get the best movie watching effect - but if you're in the particular "mood" that is required; you're almost guaranteed to have a good time. I personally laughed my ass off throughout the picture, and it's hard not to when it keeps bombarding you with such inspired and ridiculous imagery and situations. You want an example? How about a giant, human-sized white lab rat (in reference to the exploding one in that earlier scene) showing up at the Ramones concert that essentials starts off the third act? Or how about the high school music teacher (who we presumed hated rock music) arriving in his regular attire, ready to have a groovy time? I could list off so many things, but I do know that I found myself laughing a lot. You get so entrapped by the film's surreal nature that the only thing you can do is laugh almost maniacally. As a midnight movie, it gives you all you want; sleaze (the spandex gym scene, oh God), sex (albeit awkward and brief pseudo-sex), and surrealism. Arkush seems to direct it with real passion and style. It's not great looking, but it's great sounding and great feeling. I'll bet you it takes an acquired taste to appreciate it in full, but screw it; I'll bite, but only because I truly loved it.