Ever since rock and roll came around, there have been rebellious teenagers flocking to it and using it as the soundtrack to their shenanigans, and strict authoritarian figures assigning the blame for those shenanigans on the music and trying to shut it down. While I’m a bit doubtful that this was still a serious concern as late as 1979, when most of the parents and authorities were made up of the previous generation’s rebellious rocking teenagers, it continued to be a trend shown in movies and it still rears its head once in a while; it’s apparently the plot of the Footloose remake, despite the fact that everybody in the movie is most likely significantly younger than rock and roll. Featuring the Ramones and their music, it’s possible that Rock ‘n’ Roll High School could have excused the cliche plot by making it about punk rock instead of general rock, but they didn’t… instead, Roger Corman opted to approach it with a comic sensibility, with the movie occasionally teasing at being a spoof of the genre. The genial goofiness of the film elevates it from being just another “kids show the adults who’s boss through rockin’ out” movie.
The school of the title is Vince Lombardi High School, which has recently been assigned a new principal, Miss Togar (Mary Woronov). Miss Togar feels that all the evils of today’s youth can be ascribed to rock and roll, and has conducted “scientific” experiments on mice to prove it, which she demonstrates to a couple of the teachers at the school (for example, she demonstrates the hearing loss caused by rock and roll by blowing up one of the mice. She’s more than a bit off her rocker.) Leading the opposition is “Riff” Randell (P. J. Soles), a Ramones-obsessed girl who is constantly setting up opportunities for the students to listen to rock and roll, stealing school turntables and putting her own punk rock compositions in the player for the gym work-out tapes. (We never hear what Riff’s actual name is; I assume Riff is a nickname solely on the presumption that no parent would name their daughter Riff.)
On the left, the spirit of youthful freedom. On the right,
Nazisthe Principal and her hall monitors.
Miss Togar is assisted by a pair of hall monitors (Loren Lester & Daniel Davies) who are more boorish and slavishly devoted than even the most brown-nosing student, but who abuse their power to bully other students, particularly one hapless freshman. Running interference for Riff is her brainy friend Kate Rambeau (Dey Young), who provides one of the subplots for the film. Kate, beyond needing the typical “loosening up” that the brainy best friend always needs in these films, is also interested in dating quarterback Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten), but Tom scarcely notices her. Tom is instead interested in Riff, but Riff, along with every other girl in school, finds him terminally dull; she has a point, as his conversational gambits consist of talking about the weather in Idaho (note: they’re not in Idaho). Tom turns to high school hustler Eaglebauer (Clint Howard) for help; Eaglebauer makes a contract with him to get him a date with Riff, while also making a contract with Kate to get her together with Tom.
The central conflict of the film is the music, though, and it comes to a head with the Ramones coming into town for a concert. Riff gets tickets for most of the girls in the school, but her own are confiscated. She lucks out and wins a pair of tickets, however, so her and Kate head to the concert after all, breaking a date with Tom in the process.
Tom reacts to getting cock-blocked by random happenstance.
The concert leads to the Ramones themselves coming to the school and engaging in a big over-the-top showdown with Miss Togar, the monitors, the parents, and the police. Riff takes over the school’s P.A. system with the help of the school’s music teacher (Paul Bartel), who has been won over by “the Beethovens of their day”. But it’s Kate who does the most damage as the students demonstrate just how little they’re willing to put up with having their freedoms curtailed.
Don’t tick off clever people. It tends to end badly.
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School isn’t a particularly deep movie, and the acting in it is fairly pedestrian (though there isn’t any truly bad acting in the film.) But it’s filled with a sense of humor that really lifts the work, with typical high school hijinks, some goofy surrealism (the mouse people), and clever sight gags ranging from the different expressions on the Vince Lombardi photos to the confused sign-holder at the Ramones concert. (I realize the intersection of Ramones fans and Gabby Hayes fans is probably a very small number of people, but as one of those people, I thought it was great.)
Little known fringe benefit of being a rock star: unlimited vanity plates.
It’s easy to see why this film became a cult classic. The humor, combined with the great soundtrack, makes an otherwise “OK” film a lot of fun to watch.