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Category:    Home > Reviews > Comedy > Satire > Teens > Rock N Roll High School - Special Edition (Disney DVD)

Rock N Roll High School Special Edition (Buena Vista)

 

Picture: B- Sound: C Extras: B+ Film: B

 

 

On the surface of things, Rock 'N' Roll High School (1979) looks like a crass cash grab.

 

In the red corner, you have Roger Corman, low-fi filmmaking impresario, producing a pretty simple, by the numbers movie about conformity and how the old people just don't understand that rock and roll jazz all the youngsters are listening to.

 

In the blue corner, the Ramones are the hot new things, fresh on the scene from energetic live shows at New York's CBGBs and high-octane punk albums that heralded the genre in America.

 

They meet at the center of the ring, and out pops a ready-made, feature-length clip promoting the Ramones' music; a guaranteed hit that will reap benefits for everyone involved: Corman, director Allan Arkush, the Ramones, the record company releasing their albums and whatever studio decides to release the film. But if you go into Rock 'N' Roll High School with that idea and you don't shake it after the first five minutes, then, man, you're just as square as the nefarious Principal Togar.

 

Like the best cult films, Rock 'N' Roll High School is brilliant despite itself. The Evil Dead movies exist as both cult and popular entertainment because they're so schlocky, yet so irreverent, that they rise above their low-budget shortcomings. And you can't deny it if it pops up as the late late late late movie on some public access channel.

 

The same goes for Rock 'N' Roll High School.

 

The film centers on a fairly bland premise. A high school has a student body obsessed with rock and roll. Lead rocker -- and borderline groupie -- is Riff Randell (P.J. Soles), obsessed with all things rock and, conveniently, the Ramones. Riff, along with best friend Kate Rambeau (Dey Young), becomes the target of assimilation-happy, I-long-for-'50s-conformity Principal Togar (Mary Woronov). A battle of wills between the adults and kids takes over.

 

It's the same sort of story audiences would see in full force in the '80s with films like Footloose, so in a way Rock 'N' Roll High School is progenitive. But where the film becomes groundbreaking is in its association with the Ramones.

 

In 1979, The Ramones were on the cusp. The group's first album in 1975, Ramones, was made in part because of the band's hugely successful shows at CBGBs. And by the time "Rock 'N' Roll High School" came along, the Ramones had already cultivated the status of being America's answer to groups like the Sex Pistols. But by appearing in the film, the Ramones came out with not only a huge single -- written, the film postulates, by Riff Randell, the Ramones' number one fan herself -- but also the luxury of being exposed to a wide audience not yet exposed to the searing, in-your-face punk the band practiced.

 

Credit Corman and his factory team of filmmakers for not only pushing this film to get made, but having the forethought to imagine how successful a film with semi-important-to-pop-culture musicians would be.

 

According to Arkush, Corman and Joe Dante on the interesting "Back to School" retrospective documentary on the recently re-released DVD of the film, Rock 'N' Roll High School had been languishing in the Corman equivalent of development hell for a long time -- so long, in fact, that the original impetus for this film was a script titled "Disco High." The horror.

 

After many stops and starts, mostly generated by the attachment and subsequent dropping of bands and musical acts -- Van Halen, Cheap Trick, Tom Petty and Todd Rundgren were all, at one time, tapped to be featured in the film -- Rock 'N' Roll High School finally got off the ground -- or perhaps launched like a rocket is more like it -- with the Ramones as the centerpiece. And, let's face it, the film would never achieved any sort of notoriety without the Ramones, cult or otherwise. The horrendously awful acting of nearly every Ramone, Joey in particular, gives the film that bit of kitsch appeal when watching it now. Imagine David Lee Roth in that role and the resulting film would be decidedly different.

 

Beyond the bad acting of the Ramones, you have the bad acting of nearly every lead to add to the fire. Soles and Dey don't exactly light up the screen -- unless you mean burning it down with their fire-breathing scene chewing. Clint Howard, Ron's brother, as some weird student-adult hodgepodge that acts as a type of guidance counselor -- that operates out of the men's bathroom -- is particularly bad. But you can't blame him, really. It's his first major role and he's damn funny.

 

And that's where the cult-ness of the film comes in. Besides any of its shortcomings, Rock 'N' Roll High School is hilarious and fairly spot-on as far as fanaticism goes. And it has a killer soundtrack, beyond the music of the Ramones, which is definitely a plus.

 

Add all those ingredients together, stir in some midnight movie status to it and pepper with word-of-mouth discussion of the film and you have a bona fide cult classic.

 

The new DVD release of Rock 'N' Roll High School is by no means definitive, but it's certainly an upgrade over the previous release and it's a fitting tribute to such a landmark of cult filmmaking.

 

The 1.78 X 1 anamorphic widescreen presentation of the film is decent enough. The print is clean, even if some spots of dirt and dust pop up from time to time. But even so, it's surely better than a presentation based on a washed out print that's been making the rounds of sweaty one-screen theaters occupying the dirtiest corners of the world.

 

The audio leaves a little more to be desired. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono soundtrack is fine for watching on a standard television, but if you're watching a film on a home theater set-up -- especially one with as much music, recorded and live, as this film -- you want a dynamic presentation. Unfortunately, this disc doesn't have that.

 

The extras, though, are paydirt. Besides the "Back to School" featurette, the disc boasts two commentaries, one with Corman and Young and another ported from the previous release with Arkush, screenwriter Richard Whitley and producer Michael Finnell. In an era where many "quality," "successful" films aren't graced with even one commentary track, to have two on a film like Rock 'N' Roll High School is a gift from the film gods for fans. There is also a trailer, a collection of original radio ads and, what should be most exciting for fans of the film and the Ramones especially, a collection of audio outtakes of the Ramones performing for the climactic concert scene. At over 20 minutes, these Ramones live cuts aren't only substantive (much more so than you might think) but they're incredible to listen to, even if they sound a little spotty.

 

Rock 'N' Roll High School is a fun film with an interesting history to it. It could have been an exercise in crass futility -- and probably should have been -- but instead stands as a document of America and music at the end of the '70s. Its most recent DVD incarnation isn't the best it could be, but it's better than the film deserves, making the disc an essential addition to the collections of film fans and music aficionados alike.

 

 

- Dante A. Ciampaglia


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