Allan Arkush’s film Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979) is a deeply felt, autobiographical expression by the filmmaker within the idiom of early sixties teeny bopper rock musicals. Arkush drew on his experiences in high school and working at the Fillmore East to create a high school musical that instead of starring Fabian or Frankie Avalon stars The Ramones. It’s a crazy idea that shouldn’t work but it does. Arkush’s biography plays out in these early films like Hollywood Boulevard (1976), Get Crazy (1983), and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School with the best and most personal films being those that revolve around music.
Everything that makes Get Crazy the demented masterpiece that it is was first perfected in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. Essentially Arkush and his collaborators Joe Dante, Richard Whitley, and Russ Dvonch took A Hard Days Night (1964) and infused it with Mad Magazine style gags that are twice as campy as anything in Hollywood Boulevard. It’s a grotesque spectacle that suits the high school musical sub genre in a way that makes for a more honest expression of adolescence than Grease (1978). Rock ‘n’ Roll High School functions as a collective catharsis for the filmmaker and the spectator whereby all of the emotional baggage of high school can have its roof blown off.
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School was made for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures and features all of the hallmarks of such a production; there are extraneous shots of cleavage, stupid gags, and the stock company of players. Actors Mary Woronov, Dick Miller, and Paul Bartel all appear in numerous Corman productions, including Hollywood Boulevard. Woronov plays the tyrannical, mouse obsessed Principal Togar with Bartel as the music teacher who learns to embrace rock music and Miller as the grouchy police chief. Each of them plays an adult, an authority figure, with enough camp for a Jerry Lewis picture.
The kids, comprised of archetypes extracted from Arkush and Dante’s cinephile knowledge, embody teenagers everywhere. The performances of P. J. Soles and Dey Young as the teenage leads are less campy than their adult counterparts and allow them to be more relatable, providing Rock ‘n’ Roll High School with its emotional core. The scene where P. J. Soles fantasizes about having The Ramones sing to her is erotic while also being sweetly innocent and one of the most touchingly relatable scenes in Arkush’s career. The Ramones handle the scene confidently enough but it’s Soles’ acting that really sells the dream sequence.
The real coup from a stylistic standpoint is that two thirds of the way into Rock ‘n’ Roll High School the film becomes a concert film à la A Hard Days Night. This section of the film is even less disruptive to the pacing of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School than it was to Richard Lester. Immediately it becomes clear why Get Crazy works so well and why Arkush first imagined it as a serious drama because Arkush can find in rock music images that sustain both the auditory energy and the narrative necessity of the film equally. It’s a quality that Lester wasn’t able to import from A Hard Day’s Night to Help! (1965).
For years Rock ‘n’ Roll High School has been my back-to-school movie of choice. Even now, with any sort of formal schooling a distant memory, I still watch Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and jam out to its kick-ass soundtrack every September. It’s a classic movie both in the context of New World Pictures and American cinema as a whole. You just can’t go wrong with a film that includes a giant mouse wearing an apron with the text “I hate mouse work” written on it.