Part of the PJ Soles Blogathon on Day of the Woman
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 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, healthy, as long as it stayed a fantasy. 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 in AIP WIPs) 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. 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; Woronov's loyal EATING RAOUL comrade Paul Bartel is the music teacher who ends up joining the kids' side when the warring sides are picked, 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, for as that song by the Velvet Underground goes, "her life was saved by rock-and-roll / hey baby, 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 to appear... even in her shower!
This fantasy sequence--Joey singing to her while she reclines in bed 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. The band's too busy playing to ever submit to the petty lusts that drag the rest of the cast down. Soles and her Ramones puritans of punk, replacing sex with destruction to go with drugs and rock and roll. And when the Ramones come to the local rock theater, Joey reads Riff's letter on stage and so they follow her to the school next day (though it is against the rules). 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 lusts on their or her part. 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 and a thousand crushed-together perfumes, like real rock concerts smell. Hey! Hey! Why not? And the kids can come too, that's the important thing. I've been there and can ascertain, this is how it is/was. He sustains the excitement most concert films only touch on scattershot, and he builds it up, and then farther up.
As the villain, Mary Woronov's character is all bark and no bite, plotting dastardly vengeance but mostly just standing around and covering her ears noting "they play very loud!" This is as it should be, implying Woronov's principle understands Lacan and the nature of the Big Other as the non du pere, meant to be overturned and challenged, and indeed existing for no other purpose than as a challenge to be overcome. After slaying the dragon and becoming king, a hero's first duty is to replace the dragon for the next contestant.
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 to become infectiously goofball; 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, like a real teenage girl you're friends with but would be terrified to date.
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. Right, Homelite?