In Honor Of Joey Ramone’s Birthday, We Remember The Bizarre Glories Of ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll High School’

It was the late 1970s, and Roger Corman, the king of cheap schlocky B-movies, wanted to churn out a film about teenagers that tapped into the popular music of the time. The initial thought was disco, but disco was, alas, nigh dead. At which point Corman, along with the help of Allan Arkush and Joe Dante and perhaps some others, turned their attention to the world of rock music. All they needed was a musical act to base the movie around. After some names got tossed about, they settled on pretty much the perfect band for the story, The Ramones. In 1979, Rock ‘N’ Roll High School was released. It was just another shoestring-budgeted Corman flick (they reportedly made it for $200,000, the equivalent of less than $650,000 today; by comparison, Mad Max: Fury Road had a budget of $150 million), and a chance for Arkush, then all of 30, to direct a film solo (he had co-directed Hollywood Boulevard with Dante and took over on the film Deathsport when Nicholas Niciphor dropped out). They ended up creating a cult classic that serves as a lasting testament to the music of The Ramones.

Rock ‘N’ Roll High School is a fascinating viewing experience. At times, you may find yourself wondering, “Is this the worst movie ever made? Or is it a work of unparalleled genius?” It feels like both, depending on the moment. It’s a comedy that throws multiple kitchen sinks at you. It has Clint Howard and Dick Miller in it. It is a musical that ends — apologies for the spoiler, but this is an old movie, and also the plot barely feels important to the film — with a group of rowdy, punk-loving high school students blowing up their school. It’s a movie that comes from a time when jokes about hazing freshman were commonplace. It’s a product of its time, but oh what a time it must have been.

The movie’s fulcrum is Riff Randell, played delightfully by P.J. Soles, who considers herself the world’s biggest Ramones fan. A lot of the film focuses on her trying to get tickets for a Ramones show or dreaming about The Ramones or hanging out with The Ramones. This is probably the only movie ever made where somebody has fantasied sexually about any of The Ramones, let alone all four of them, and she isn’t even the only one! Of course, Riff’s desire to rock out puts her into conflict with the school’s stodgy principal Evelyn Togar, played by Warhol Factory regular Mary Woronov. You know who wins because you already read the part about the school being blown up, and because this was a movie desperately hoping to garner an audience of rebellious teenagers.

It’s also an excellent movie for Ramones fans. A lot of their songs are featured, and there’s an extensive concert scene where we get to watch them play. That’s not all, as we also get to see The Ramones act. They aren’t exactly naturals, but they are game, although a longstanding rumor is that Dee Dee was so bad that his lines were cut from five down to two.

Of course, this movie is also responsible for The Ramones song “Rock ‘N’ Roll High School,” which appeared on their first record after this movie came out, 1980’s Phil Spector-produced End of the Century. It was a fitting title for the album, as it essentially marked the last time The Ramones were really generating strong material, and when they were still part of the punk zeitgeist. What a way to go out, however, with this movie, and with that album.

Though they weren’t the first choice, The Ramones were clearly the best choice to be featured in this film. They came with a built-in iconography that, say, Todd Rundgren wouldn’t have had. Furthermore, their low-fi punk sensibilities fit in perfectly with both the aesthetic of the film, but also with the rebellious spirit at its heart. Frankly, if it had been anybody but The Ramones, the movie wouldn’t have been as successful.

If you are a fan of The Ramones, you should definitely check out Rock ‘N’ Roll High School (as a matter of fact, if you’re a Ramones fan, you probably already have). It’s a film for more than just Ramones fans, though. It’s a movie for people who like absurdist comedy, or have an affinity for old exploitation films, or just want to see Clint Howard play the coolest guy in high school. It’s bizarre and slapdash and not entirely successful, but it is also an integral piece of film history, and of music history. There is a reason Corman was given an Honorary Oscar, despite the fact he spent his entire career making movies like Teenage Cave Man and Caged Heat. Occasionally, something like Rock ‘N’ Roll High School would come along, giving punk fans something to enjoy for years to come.