Friday, September 07, 2007

Random Movie Report #34: Rock and Roll High School

Sometimes the cure for blog burnout is right under your nose. I’d had this DVD at my apartment via Netflix for quite some time, never quite remembering why I ordered it, and finally made the time to watch it, and lo and behold, it was weird and goofy and funny and lively enough for me to want to write about it.

ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL is a very bouncy little picture characterized by a very bouncy performance by P. J. Soles, an actress who should have made more movies than she did. A surprisingly clean high school comedy- for 1979, for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, and for a movie involving the Ramones- the film gets by on great songs, incredibly dumb gags, and enthusiastic acting. It’s the sort of film that’s better than you’d think, despite seemingly making no attempt to be good. Which, you have to admit, is pretty punk rock for a PG movie.

Soles plays Riff Randel, a student at Vince Lombardi High School and a rabid Ramones fan. She’s actually written several songs for the band, and hopes to give them to the group at a concert they’ll be having in a few days. But a new principal (Mary Woronov, having way too much fun) has performed some scientifically dubious experiments on mice proving the deleterious effects of rock and roll, and is intent that this sort of thing be discouraged among her students. So, when Riff takes a few days off to camp out for tickets (not just for her but for the entire student body), she goes on the warpath. Meanwhile, football captain Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten) has been trouble getting a date, and goes to school entrepreneur Eaglebauer (Clint Howard), who promises Tom a date with his love, who happens to be Riff. But in the meantime he sets her up with Riff’s friend Kate Rambeau (Dey Young), who as it turns out has been pining for Tom for some time. The two start dating under the pretense that this is “practice”, and complications ensue, just in time for the big concert.

This is a wilder high school comedy than most, relying on broad and stupid jokes that are nonetheless kind of funny. (Perhaps this is the reason why the film went for a PG- they didn’t want to cut out the target audience.) The IMDB lists Jerry Zucker as an uncredited director, and it’s known that Joe Dante (of GREMLINS fame) stepped in to handle a couple of sequences when Allan Arkush suffered exhaustion and had to be hospitalized. Despite multiple hands the film has a coherent feel, albeit a deliberately sloppy one. The high-school level gags are creative enough to be pretty amusing despite themselves, especially some of the bits involving mice (which include a man in a giant-sized mouse costume designed by THE HOWLING’s Rob Bottin.) Enthusiastic work by the cast sells it, and veteran filmmaker Paul Bartel is particularly good.

But it all comes back to P.J. Soles. She is perfectly cast here, displaying an energy and enthusiasm that pretty much lights up every scene the character is in. Watching her performance in this film, I get the feeling that the only thing which kept her from being a star was her actual decision to start a family instead of continuing with the acting game. I can’t fault her for her choice, but we the viewers are poorer for it; she makes Riff Randel so damn lovable that it’s impossible not to root for her to get everything she wants. (She also may be the one female protagonist in a high school comedy who has more or less no romantic inclinations whatsoever- her heart belongs to Joey Ramone.) As good a job as everyone else does, Soles walks away with the movie.

The music in this film is a lovely call back to the days when rights to popular songs did not cost millions of dollars apiece and even low budget filmmakers could load their soundtracks with whatever worked best for the picture. Obviously all the Ramones stuff was a package deal (presented in fun musical numbers, including one where Riff fantasizes about the band being in her bedroom), but we also have Chuck Berry, Devo, Alice Cooper, Fleetwood Mac, Wings, the Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, and Brownsville Station, among others. Since this film is sort of a musical, all this is important, and that the film pretty much stops the story in several places so the Ramones can play would be annoying if it weren’t for the fact that it’s damn good music.

This film was made at what may have been the height of American exploitation cinema- home video had yet to take hold, and so films from places like New World could still be assured of getting a look-in at some kinds of theaters more-or-less nationwide, and though budgets were low, a given Corman-produced film would still have a good explosion or two, actual crowd scenes, more than five sets, etc. You had ambitious young talents on the payroll and earnest attempts at making something watchable.

ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL is a movie for everyone: Ramones fans, musical fans, people who like watching mice explode, people who like dance numbers featuring schoolgirls in gym outfits, people who like Clint Howard, etc. It really ought to be more well-known as a movie; it was an early example of the kind of MAD Magazine humor that had been introduced in KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE and would soon go mainstream in AIRPLANE!, it features a downright starmaking performance, and it may be the only PG-rated punk movie ever made. Fun for the whole family, really.

Story by Allan Arkush and Joe Dante
Screenplay by Richard Whitely & Russ Dvonch and Joseph McBride
Directed (mostly) by Allan Arkush

Grade: B+

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