Retro Review: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School

By and large I am not a huge fan of musicals, but there are exceptions. With its high energy, great plot, and flawless talent of Gene Kelly, Singin’ in the Rain is one I will always watch. With it’s grounded and heartfelt nature, the Irish independent film Once is nothing short of a masterpiece in my eyes. With its combination of campy horror and humor the 70’s glam rock interpretation of Gaston Leroux’s classic tale, Phantom of the Paradise is one of the greatest movies ever made. Another musical that always gets me stoked is one the great Roger Corman produced to prove that even in 1979 he still had his finger on the pulse of what teenage audiences wanted. Featuring punk legends the Ramones that movie in the masterpiece Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.

Aspiring song writer Riff Randell only wants to spread her love of rock ‘n’ roll and the Ramones with the others at Vince Lombardi High School. But the strict and cruel new administrator Principal Togar wants to stomp out this love of rock music. When the Ramones roll into town for a concert, Riff sees this as a chance to get her music in front of the band. Along with her best friend Kate, she has to find away to get tickets despite the obstacle posed by Togar. Needing to fight back against this repression from authority, Riff eventually leads a takeover of the school with the punk legends remaking Vince Lombardi High School into Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.

Aside from the killer music from the Ramones, the reason Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is still a beloved cult classic all these years later is because of the characters. PJ Soules exudes a devil-may-care edgy coolness as Riff Randell, which is felt by the characters onscreen and those watching in the real world. Cult film icon Paul Bartel steal any scene he is in as the stiff music teacher who eventually joins the kids. Clint Howard is of course a national treasure and the duo of Loren Lester and Daniel Davies are hysterical as Principal Togar’s stooges. The certified fan favorite is Kate Rambeau, played by Dey Young. She could have been another of those trope characters, of the nerdy sidekick to the protagonist and/or the pretty girl hiding behind glasses. Instead she was made a character ahead of her time and portrayed as being just as cool as her best friend Riff, just in a different way. She is the subject of a great character arc and eventually gets the guy without changing who she is or sacrificing any of her character traits.

Of course the selling point of this flick is the music from Joey, Deedee, Johnny and Marky. If you do not like the tunes of the New York-based legends of punk rock this is not the movie for you (and you may want to get your brain examined because how can you not dig the Ramones?). The energetic music that made moved the four bandmates from the stage of the storied CGBG into rock icons is all there at full strength. Rock ‘n’ roll has been tied to youthful rebellion and excitement since Elvis first shimmied his hips at Memphis’ Levitt Shell. That spirit is captured here to perfection for this new generation. We even get a memorable climax where the kids finally put a middle finger to authority by blowing up the school.

This is a movie which has aged like a fine wine, or in this case a Red Bull that has been perfectly chilled. The Ramones deliver the loud and catchy music that has made them one of the greatest bands of all-time. So many of their fan favorites from “Blitzkrieg Bop” to “Do You Wanna Dance” and of course “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” are all there. In addition to the legendary quartet from Queens, the soundtrack also has great artists like Velvet Underground, Alice Cooper, and Brownsville Station. For a movie that will make you feel like a kick-ass teen all over again (or the kick-ass teen you wish you were) Rock ‘n’ Roll High School can not be missed.