Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Columbine Queen: PJ Soles in ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979)

Part of the PJ Soles Blogathon on Day of the Woman

The blowing up of one's school was a sacred fantasy to us sugar-crazed kids of the 1970s. We imagined big explosions and gym mats and sneakers raining down in slow motion all over town. It was long before ADD, Columbine, or Anthrax, a time when a little pyrotechnic destruction of one's school was expected, allowed, respected, if contained in fantasy. That fantasy that comes to life in ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL and it's never since been depicted before or since with such strident rock defiance.  If ROCK was released now, well... it just wouldn't be released at all, so why even ponder? As it is, we'll always have 1979.

Vince Lombardi High School's fate is sealed with the arrival of a new principal (Mary Woronov, drawing on her experience playing cruel prison wardens), one determined to weed out the bad kids, such as platter-spinning Ramones devotee Riff Randell (PJ Soles), as if that ever worked. Oblivious to this looming threat, Riff just knows if she can get her songs to Joey Ramone he'd sing them; she thinks he's dreamy (and if PJ Soles can think a hunched beanpole doofus like Joey Ramone is dreamy then there is surely hope for us all). Meanwhile an insecure jock (Vince Van Patten) pays for make-out lessons from the school's drug dealer, and Woronov's loyal EATING RAOUL comrade Paul Bartel is the cool music teacher who ends up joining the revolution, declaring that "if Beethoven were a student at Vince Lombardi, he'd be a Ramone!"

Well, it turns out the music of the Ramones is the perfect pogo-ready soundtrack to the angsty years of high school; it infects the entire rhythm of the film, gradually pulling the narrative away from Riff and Co's high school persecution at the hands of scheming Woronov and into total celebration of rock and roll, and in particular, the album Road to Ruin, which Riff Randell plays while relaxing with a joint in her bedroom. She puffs and rocks so righteously that the Ramones even appear... Joey even serenades her in her shower!

This fantasy sequence, Soles in her foxy orange undergarments all the while, maintains an admirable mix of the edgy and innocent that's a perfect encapsulation of Arkush's special directorial gifts. A joint is no indication of sexual activeness in Arkush's knowing milieu: it's rock music that rules the holy trinity, not sex or drugs; and the band's too busy playing to ever submit to the petty lusts that drag other rock films down. Soles and her Ramones are puritans of punk, replacing sex with destruction--not of self, but of phony institutional restrictions, and when the Ramones come to the local rock theater, and Joey reads Riff's letter on stage, asking them to come play at Vince Lombardi, well, it seems natural. Of course they will show up at the school! Hey ho! Let's go!  While bouncy teen groupies are a fact of life on the road, we nonetheless admire how Randle's almost spiritual devotion to their primitivist rock energy transcends any rote deflowering on their end--she's an incarnation of their music and they know it--it's a two way streak of muse-manship. She's like a punk Mary Magdalene and they become a groovy flotilla of leather jacket Jesuses.

The success of PORKY'S the following year (1980) alas undid the progress of Arkush's holy rock arc, and once again sex and boys were all girls were allowed to think about, back to becoming objects for leering at and nothing else, but in 1979 they understood that rock and roll is a holy thing - and rock is itself beyond gender, beyond the phony promises of adolescent biology and American advertising. When sex is sublimated into rock, everybody wins!

This is awesome because, without this kind of sublimation, the female adolescent fantasy cannot survive and teenage girls become mired in boytoy mirroring and anti-objectification/prurience dichotomies like LITTLE DARLINGS, FOXES, and FOXFIRE, where every man is abusive, groping, desperate, stalking, or a degenerate charmer out to steal their allowance, knock them up, and split to high-five with their boys (GREASE). But not here, baby. Under the Ramones' benevolent primitivist purity, the animus stays safe between the ponies of childhood and the sexual boyfriends of maturity. And they know it, and they're into it. Punk is their unified field, delivering them from harm amidst the chaos they wreak.

So what a joy to find this kind of thing in a rock film since--in addition to the verboten celebration of blowing up the school--letting underage high school girls around mature punk rocker skeeves would raise so many eyebrows today that the laws of self-fulfilling prophecy would take effect. Parents would protest a movie like this before it even came out, then secretly go see it and feel cheated when there's no gang bang.

All that is great, but what finally unmoors the movie from traditional sex comedy orbit altogether is the wild frenetic anarchy of the all-ages punk rock show centerpiece of the film. Director Alan Arkush had worked as an usher for the Filmore back in the day so both this and his unjustly unavailable 1983 masterwork GET CRAZY have that real-life sense of being there, of being caught up in the excitement of a real rock show when rock shows were real. His concerts reek of pot, cigarette, dry ice, and a thousand crushed-together perfumes, like real rock concerts smell. Hey! Hey! I watch these films and get a giddy sensation in my toes I don't get in any other rock movie. And the kids can come too, that's the important thing. The all-ages show is never taken lightly. I saw many all-ages Ramones shows as a teenager (City Gardens, c. 1983-5) and this one is better than being there. Arkush sustains the excitement most concert films only touch on scattershot, and he builds it up, and then farther up, to levels no other director can reach because they've never been there themselves.

Unafraid to be infectiously goofball rather than dully sexy, Soles, who so often played best friends to final girls--goofy, strident, horny, and lacking the sense of insecurity and self-consciousness that would make her aware of approaching danger (such as in HALLOWEEN)--lets fly as Riff. It's a crime it's her only lead role in any major film. Her little lithe body bouncing around covered in the bright shiny colors that had not yet come to signify the encroaching 1980s--plus her tendency to make funny faces, bugging her eyes out, tightening and pursing her thin lips--can't be dismissed as mere mugging since it's so perfectly apt for the age. Never adding more smarts than a normal teen would have, and twice as much heedless momentum, she's a tangle of sincerity, giggles, self-satire and genuine ferocity. I'd be scared to date her. But I'd want to be at parties she was at. That's the kind of girl every high school needs.

In short, PJ Soles rocks and if you have problems getting through the first bits of this movie, with ancient Og Oggleby as a school official in a boardroom and all the typical teen sexcom clownery, hold fast, go pour a drink, and then return to let the rock of the Ramones work its magic. You might end up as I did, bouncing around your living room to their protean punk and PJ's awesome bug-eyed purity while your flatmates look at you with quiet annoyance. But hey, Riff's got a chainsaw with their name on it. Blitzkrieg Bop, and BOOM!

1 comment:

  1. I was never bored at a Ramones show--well, maybe--but I saw them plenty at City Gardens too! Way down in front near Dee Dee. This is a great piece on the legend that is Riff Randall.