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Rock ‘n’ Roll High School: 30th Anniversary Special Edition (Blu-ray Review)

3 May, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 5/4 DVD, 5/11 Blu-ray
Shout! Factory
$19.93 DVD, $26.97 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars P.J. Soles, Vincent Van Patten, Dey Young, The Ramones.

Other than perhaps as a figment of director Allan Arkush’s self-admitted wishes, maybe the ragged but raucous Rock ‘n’ Roll High School isn’t the Ramones’ equivalent of A Hard Day’s Night. But in some ways, maybe it is. There was obviously something delightfully off-the-cuff about the Forest Hills punkers, which the movie fully captures. My favorite story about its making has always been the claim that the group was talked into making this Roger Corman production because they admired the latter’s early-career salvo Attack of the Crab Monsters from 1957.

“Do your parents know you’re Ramones?” This is my favorite line of the movie, and it’s uttered by dictatorial principal Miss Togar (Mary Woronov) as the group lends its shabby imprimatur to the climactic blow-up of the school — a scene one admittedly views more uneasily now, given domestic terrorist attacks of the past 15 years.

It all started with Corman’s wish to make a movie called Disco High, a conceit eventually abandoned when the personnel hired started to retch. Foremost among these was Arkush, who had previously worked almost the entire tenure of Bill Graham’s Fillmore East and later made a very funny and little seen comedy about the experience: 1983’s Get Crazy. Someone notes on the DVD/Blu-ray extras — but just once, as if the info were slipping out — that the High School finally came in for $300,000, though Corman’s intentions were for something in the $160,000 range, which was never going to work: the pom-poms and the labor of ripping holes into the knees of the Ramones’ jeans had to cost something.

The story deals with rebel Riff Randle (P.J. Soles, then coming off Halloween) and her contest of wills with the Togar menace, who wants to obliterate rock and roll. In one scene, the latter sets fire to a stack of LPs, complete with an indelible image of flames cascading across the zipper on the cover of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, ouch! Continuing this Nazi motif, she employs a pair of doughy storm troopers as hall monitors.

Soles is fabulous in the role of a lifetime that should have led to a more substantial career. She’s effectively teamed with Dey Young (real-life sister of Leigh-Taylor Young), playing a bookish type whose babedom is obscured by large glasses frames. In real life, we’re told in the set’s copious extras, that Soles was studious in school and Young was the rebel perennially in trouble.

There’s also the late Paul Bartel as a good-guy teacher who secretly wears a Ramones T-shirt; onetime W.C. Fields foil Grady Sutton (his final film) as the school board president at Vince Lombardi High; and an array of mice, including one with a speaking part, who are either made to explode or at least suffer hearing impairment from the decibel level of the Ramones’ playing. And let’s not forget Clint Howard, younger brother of Ron, as the school string-puller whose duties include matchmaking (against a kind of “Let’s Make a Deal”/”The Price Is Right” backdrop).

Corman’s New World company released School in many markets as the subordinate half of a double bill with the Who documentary The Kids Are Alright. But its energy and sweet-natured nihilism caught on quickly — with sustained appeal coming via the Ramones’ escalating popularity and (for a while) the movie’s frequent showings on MTV. The latter, though, came with a price because the network always trimmed Soles’ pot-hazed dream sequence where the group appears in and outside of her bedroom, which is one of the high points.

Blu-ray is only going to help a production this humble so much — though High School was shot by Dean Cundey, who later scored in the big leagues via Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. In any event, I don’t recall it looking this good in 1979 — or when I showed it at the AFI Theatre in 1980 (where it a drew a healthy house even before its cult following had begun). The soundtrack (Brownsville Station, Nick Lowe — not just the Ramones) is a minor classic, and the album was pieced together for a fraction of what it would cost today.

The new and recycled DVD extras are a ball and include Arkush, Corman, Woronov, Howard and director Joe Dante (who had to take over the lively girls’ gym sequence after Arkush was hospitalized with exhaustion). Soles, Young and male lead Vincent Van Patten reunite informally in an outdoor setting, and the film-related memorabilia Soles pulls out is impressive. She also says that Rosanna Arquette warned her nearly everyday pre-production that she (Rosanna) “had the part.”

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