Director: Allan Arkush
Buena Vista

ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL has a lot going for it. For starters, you have PJ Soles and Mary Woronov. PJ’s Riff Randal and Woronov’s Ms. Togar are iconic characters that carry the show. Right off the bat, their performances alone are gonna make it one of the funnier drive-in movies of its era. Add a well-picked supporting cast of Clint Howard, Dey Young, Paul Bartel, and Vincent Van Patten, and you’ve got a pitch-perfect high school flick full of charismatic and talented actors. Now inject an ambitious, hard working first time director just bubbling over with ideas and creative collaborators. It’s just getting better and better. All that said the truth is that the single biggest reason that ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL is here today is because of The Ramones.

Talk about perfect timing,… Allan Arkush was one of Roger Corman’s trailer editors turned second unit directors when he made the sub-low budget HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD in 1976 with Joe Dante. That success got him his first solo-directing gig, and it couldn’t have been a more perfect marriage. Arkush was completely in his element, and luckily for us, Corman knew well enough to let him change the name of the project from the proposed DISCO HIGH (Rog’s idea) to ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL. Arkush brought in the Ramones (fresh off recording four of the best albums of all-time in less than three years), and the result is a pinnacle of sorts for New World Pictures, one of the best rock ‘n’ roll movies ever made, a document of one of America’s greatest bands at their peak, and, oh yeah, one of the most well-written and directed teen comedies before or since.

ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL did mediocre business when it opened. But back then, movies would be given time to build an audience. And build an audience it did. Over 25 years later, it still hasn’t stopped. It became a cult classic, played midnights, depraved innocent minds across America and then the world on cable, and has consistently been one of Corman’s best assets on home video. He released it independently on DVD back in 2001 through New Concorde, in a highly recommended special edition, which has since gone out of print. Through a new deal with Buena Vista, it’s available again, and I am just overjoyed that I’ve got such a good reason to revisit one of my favorite films ever.

ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL takes place at the fictional Vince Lombardi High where the new principal, Miss Togar (Woronov) has decided to wage a one-woman war on the scourge known as rock 'n' roll. Her #1 nemesis is the spunky Riff Randall (Soles) who has written a song for her beloved Ramones and intends on delivering it to them when they arrive in town for a big concert. Meanwhile, the geeky football captain, Tom (Van Patten) lusts after Riff and has enlisted Eagelbauer (Howard), a Bilko-esque bathroom-stall black marketer, to get them together even though her best friend, the attractive but bookworm-ish Kate Rambeau (Young) carries a crush for the socially-challenged jock. Those plot lines work just fine for Arkush and company to deliver a movie full of on-target slapstick and visual gags that rarely miss. A memorable running joke involving lab mice is particularly inspired, and offers proof that the filmmakers had no shame when it came to stretching out a good bit as far as they possibly could.

As previously stated, however, it is the Ramones who steal the show, and as many have said before me, this movie just wouldn’t have been the same without them. Their unique combination of unimpeachable rock cred and unselfconscious goofiness makes them the perfect choice for this rock ‘n’ roll musical fantasy. Whether they’re lip synching on the sidewalk as they pull up to a gig, wolfing down greasy pizza backstage, appearing in Soles’ bedroom daydream, or pulling out all the stops in the big concert sequence, they are more charismatic than any band of social misfits from Queens has any right to be, and the result is a film as immediate and indicative of it’s time as A HARD DAYS NIGHT was a decade and a half earlier. By the time they’re parading down the hallways of Lombardi High singing “Do You Wanna Dance” in the middle of an elaborate song and dance number that includes synchronized football players and pom pom girls, you know you’ve seen something completely unique, elaborately conceived, and brilliantly executed, especially when considering its “modest” budget.

This new special edition has many of the same features as the old New Concorde release. We’re getting the same excellent 1.85:1 widescreen print (not 16x9 as the back cover states), the Allan Arkush commentary, which was originally recorded for the laserdisc edition, the original New World radio spots, the isolated Ramones concert footage, and the additional audio outtakes from that show. There are also some new bells and whistles to entice hard-core fans into a double dip. A new commentary has been recorded with Corman and Young, and there’s a short but informative documentary, “Back to School.” Also included is the theatrical trailer, which was advertised on the back of the New Concorde release, but somehow ended up missing from the finished product.

Unfortunately, there are also a few things missing. First, and perhaps least important, is the short interview of Roger Corman by Leonard Maltin. These little intro pieces were recorded years ago and never really offered much in the way of new information, so it’s not especially missed. The biggest omission however, is not something left off the disc, but a crucial piece of packaging. The earlier release also included a 24-page book that featured interviews with Johnny Ramone, Soles, Woronov, Bartel, Arkush, Van Patten, Young, and Howard as well as an informative essay by Richard Whitley and Russ Dvonch and a piece on the filming of the concert footage at the Roxy in LA. It was one of the best DVD booklets I’ve come across this side of the Criterion Collection, and it’s a shame that Buena Vista couldn’t have reproduced it for their new special “Rock On Edition.”

Those are minor quibbles though, and anyone picking up this version will be getting their money’s worth and then some. The features which are included are excellent, and most importantly, the movie itself still holds up more than 25 years later.

Just a quick note on the commentaries. Arkush’s also features producer Michael Finnell and screenwriter Richard Whitney, and is loads of fun. The anecdotes about the cast, crew, and the music come fast and furious. You learn a lot about what it was like to make a movie for Roger Corman in the 70s, and pick up dozens of great tidbits about this fantastic movie. The new Corman/Young commentary is a welcome addition. Roger is of course looking back at the movie from a vastly different perspective than Arkush and company, and you can tell he is proud of being associated with the film; both because it is still extremely entertaining, and also because it continues to make him a lot of money. He doesn’t always remember every name or detail as crisply as he once did, but he is still a wellspring of good, solid advice for the thrifty filmmaker, and the rapport between himself and Young is upbeat and natural. She is also very proud of the movie and clearly enjoys watching it again and again.

If you already own the old New Concorde edition of ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, you may want to add this new release to your collection, depending how much you value the new interviews and the Corman commentary. But if you don’t yet own a copy of this great movie, then you need to get your hands on it ASAP- it’s a fine package and I couldn’t recommend it more highly. It’s a perfect kickoff to the new Corman/Disney union and sets a standard for all future releases to aspire to. (Ted Cogswell)