Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Sunday, June 26, 2011

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


The blowing up of one's school was a sacred fantasy to us, the sugar-crazed kids in the 1970s; we imagined big explosions and gym mats and sneakers raining in slow motion down over our neighborhood. It was a time long before ADD, Columbine, or anthrax, a time when a little pyrotechnic destruction of one's school was expected, allowed, respected. And it's that fantasy that comes true 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.

The school's fate is sealed with the arrival of a new principal (Mary Woronov, drawing on her experience playing cruel dyke prison wardens) at Vince Lombardi High. She's determined to weed out the bad kids, such as platter-spinning Ramones devotee Riff Randle (PJ Soles). Oblivious to this looming threat, Riff just knows if she can get her songs to Joey Ramone he'd sing them, she think 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 played by 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 music teacher who ends up joining the revolution, declaring that "if Beethoven were a student at Vince Lombardi, he'd be a Ramone!"

The music of the Ramones is the perfect pogo-ready soundtrack to the angsty years of high school and their nonstop rock infects the entire rhythm of the film, gradually pulling the narrative away from Randle and Co's high school persecution and into total celebration of rock and roll, and in particular, the album Road to Ruin, which Riff Randle plays while relaxing with a joint in her bedroom. She puffs and rocks so righteous, the Ramones even appear... Joey even serenades her in her shower!

This fantasy sequence, in foxy orange undergarments, maintains an admirable mix of the edgy and innocent. A joint is no indication of sexual activeness in a cool movie like this. And the band's too busy playing to ever submit to the petty lusts that drag other rock films down. Soles and her Ramones puritans of punk, replacing sex with destruction, and when the Ramones come to the local rock theater, Joey reads Riff's letter on stage it seems natural. Of course they will show up at the school. Of course slutty teen groupies are a fact of life on the road, but again, I admire how Randle's almost spiritual devotion to their primitivist rock energy transcends any rote deflowering on their end. And for their part, her letter is taken seriously enough to let you know they're more than just on the look-out for easy tail. 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 undid the progress and once again sex and boys were all girls were allowed to think about, but in 1979 they understood that rock and roll is a holy thing.

This is awesome because, without this kind of sublimation, the female adolescent fantasy cannot survive. Because of endless unwelcome pawing backstage, whole roads of exploration and rebellion are avoided by the wary girl traveler, and the result are movies about teenage girls that are 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. But not here, baby. The Ramones become Riff's surrogate beast of burden, the animus primely situated 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. So what a joy to find this kind of thing in a rock film since, in addition to the issue of blowing up the school, letting underage high school girls around mature punk rocker skeeves would raise so many eyebrows in a few short years 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 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. His concerts reek of pot, cigarette, dry ice, and a thousand crushed-together perfumes, like real rock concerts smell. Hey! Hey! And the kids can come too, that's the important thing. The all-ages show is never taken lightly. I've been there and can ascertain, this is how it is/was. I saw many all-ages Ramones shows as a teenager and this one is ever better. Arkush sustains the excitement most concert films only touch on scattershot, and he builds it up, and then farther up.

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, unafraid to be infectiously goofball rather than sexy; she's great, and 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, her natural tendency to make funny faces, bugging her eyes out, tightening and pursing her thin lips, can't be dismissed as 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.

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.

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.