Saturday, September 10, 2011

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School: High School Musical with a Difference

With Labor Day now a memory, school’s back in session across the U.S.A. Which makes this a good time to salute Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, the 1979 high school musical that refuses to die. Producer Roger Corman and director Allan Arkush both love to talk about how Roger’s demand for a movie cashing in on the disco craze was vetoed by Allan, because “you can’t blow up a high school to disco music.”

But I know better. Because I’ve just had a long chat with Joseph McBride, the veteran journalist and film historian who was Rock ‘n’ Roll High School's original screenwriter. Joe's a bit frustrated that few give him credit for his thoroughly outrageous concept. But Rock ‘n’ Roll High School—the movie about the Ramones and their #1 fan Riff Randell—stands as a cinematic landmark of sorts, because (as Danny Peary put it in his 1981 book Cult Movies) “there is no other commercial American film in which an American institution is destroyed and no one is punished for the deed.”

According to Joe, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School began with Allan Arkush and director-crony Joe Dante dictating a script into a tape recorder. This was standard New World Pictures procedure for that era, a way of skirting Writers Guild rules by coming up with a crude first draft, so that a guild writer would need to be paid for a rewrite only. But though Joe and Allan’s draft contained a rock music element, it was hardly a true screenplay, just sixty pages of high school hijinks without a plot. Joe McBride, guild-certified author of a previous rock ‘n’ roll script in which Roger had briefly shown interest, was then hired to flesh out the story. He remembered that in 1927 his father had led a student strike to protest the firing of a beloved teacher. That strike got national attention, because it was the first time high schoolers took a public stand against campus administrators. Having survived a Catholic school education, Joe found it easy to invent a repressive principal who would incite a student protest. Still, his story seemed a bit tame for the era, until he combined it with the notorious 1970 episode at the University of Wisconsin when Sterling Hall was bombed by students protesting the Vietnam War. Also not far from his mind was the anarchic French film Zero for Conduct, as well as the bloody student revolts that ended Lindsay Anderson’s If . . . .

The ending of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is not tragic, like the Wisconsin bombing that killed a grad student working late in a physics lab. And it is not angry and nasty, in the mode of If. . . Instead, says McBride, “It’s a parody of the old Fifties films. We did that on purpose. Like Rock Around the Clock, and those kind of things.” The sheer exuberance of its music numbers lifts Rock ‘n’ Roll High School into another realm. But that exuberance came at a price: Roger had demanded that the musical, with its 45 songs, be shot in a mere 23 days. At around day 20, Allan was carted off in an ambulance, and Joe heard he’d had a major heart attack. Happily, Arkush (barely 30 at the time) has long since recovered, and gone on to a busy career in television. He continues to be a passionate fan of pop music, and his work on The Temptations earned him an Emmy award. Roger Corman, meanwhile, continues to come up with impossible shooting schedules, for which young directors give their all.


  1. What happened to "If"? I saw it in college and it's disappeared. It certainly captured the mood of anti-war and anti-authoritarian students at the time.

    Good post, Beverly!


  2. Thanks, Charles. When I watched If . . . recently, I was fascinated. So much so that I think it deserves a post of its own. I'm grateful to you for pointing me in that direction!

  3. ROCK N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL is definitely my second favorite high school film, after HEATHERS. Mostly because I'm such a big fan of The Ramones, P.J. Soles and Roger Corman films.

    The high school also exploded at the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's third season. Of course, it was done to blow up a giant snake-like demon but it was still pretty controversial. This episode was actually delayed for several months due to Columbine.

    Now I want to check out this film IF..., it sounds interesting and I love Malcolm McDowell. I met him once at a convention, he didn't look at me or talk to me as he signed the photo I just paid 30 bucks for, but being such a big fan it didn't bug me much. Better than not meeting him at all.

  4. I think you will like "If . . .," Brian. It definitely is original, sometimes odd and funny, sometimes VERY disturbing.

    I have lots more to say about shooting the ending of "Rock 'n' Roll High School." Just waiting for the perfect moment!

    P.S. I too am a fan of Malcolm McDowell. Of course I'll never forget his work in "A Clockwork Orange." It was his role in "If . . ." that led to him being cast s Alex. Are you aware he's currently in "The Artist"?

  5. What a great movie, and what a great post! I first saw this on Pay TV around 1980 or 1981, and I've been in love with it ever since. I got to work with Allan Arkush when he directed a Dawson's Creek - I went out while he was in pre-production the week before shooting and tracked down a VHS copy of the movie - which he gladly signed, using his official "Ramones" name as well as his own. I treasure that VHS even though I've upgraded the movie three times since then (2 special edition DVDs and a Blu-Ray. Kudos to Mr. McBride for his contributions, the ingredients all came together for one fun brew this time out! Ms. Gray, were you present for any of the horrific direct-to-video sequel Rock 'n' Roll High School Forever, starring Corey Feldman? I despised this movie, which had the gall to keep Eaglebauer around but recast him; and to bring back Mary Woronov, but have her in a different role than Ms. Togar! Oh, the pain, as Jonathan Harris used to say...

  6. Actually, I DID work on the sequel. I like writer-director Deborah Brock, and I know she did her best. But a sequel to Rock 'n' Roll High School is never going to compare very well to the original. (Speaking of which, did you ever see More American Graffiti, which attempted to follow up on another seminal high school film?)