"The best of this kind are but shadows..." -(Midsummer Night's Dream)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Columbine Queen: PJ Soles in ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL

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 a big explosion (either after we left or before we actually stepped within blast radius). We imagined gym mats and sneakers raining down in slow motion all over town and everyone cheering in giddy rapture. It was long before empathy, guilt, or responsibility; it was long before ADD, Columbine, or Anthrax; a little pyrotechnic destruction of one's school was expected, allowed, respected, hallowed. Contained in fantasy--with never a thought of actually trying to build a bomb or anything--it was a harmless outlet for pent-up id aggression. And that fantasy came to life twice in 1979 (when I was in 6th grade!), once in OVER THE EDGE and once--more joyously, to life to a Ramones soundtrack--in ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL. EDGE was shelved for years and never really released into theaters - it was considered too dangerous. So SCHOOL was really the only one to get away with it, and it's never since been depicted before or since with such strident rock defiance.  If ROCK was released now, well... it wouldn't be released either, 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 Ramones-hating principal (Mary Woronov, drawing on her experience playing cruel prison wardens in other New World films) determined to weed out the bad kids and their devil music. Ramones devotee Riff Randell (PJ Soles) meanwhile, is oblivious to this looming threat, as all her attention is focused on.... the Ramones. Riff 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-over big schnozz beanpole doofus like Joey Ramone is dreamy then there is surely hope for us all). Other Lombardi High students include an insecure jock (Vince Van Patten) who pays for make-out lessons from the school's drug dealer, and there's a cool teacher to balance Woronov's malice - Paul Bartel (who else?) as a music teacher who ends up joining the revolution, declaring that "if Beethoven were a student at Vince Lombardi, he'd be a Ramone!"


Though it was relatively unknown in my own hometown (all the bad kids were into KISS, normal kids liked Fleetwood Mac), it turns out the music of the Ramones provides the perfect pogo-ready soundtrack to the angsty arsonist years of high school. Their songs infect 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 has a surprising magic: Soles, in her foxy orange undergarments, 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 stars 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 he'd take her request seriously. Of course the Ramones 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--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. Girls were back to becoming objects for smelly hormonal rapey teenage creeps to leer at and try to get drunk (or to slip a "Spanish fly" in her drink). In 1979 they still 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, instead of vice versa, 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, 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 teenage boyfriend. And these Ramones know it, and they're into it. Punk is their unified field, delivering them from harm amidst the chaos they wreak. With perfect love comes freedom from fear. Abuse that trust and you're no longer a rock god, just another sad lecher,

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 take a shower with mature punk rockers 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.

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 Fillmore back in the day so both this and his unjustly unavailable 1983 masterwork GET CRAZY capture that real-life sense of being there, of being caught up in the excitement of a real rock show, from back when rock shows were real.... smokey. Arkush's concerts are vivid alive affairs--they reek of pot, cigarettes, 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, Arkush respects and reveres the teenage need to rock --he finds the healing redemption in goalless anarchy. I saw many all-ages Ramones shows as a teenager (City Gardens, c. 1983-5) and can assure this one is better than being there. Arkush sustains the excitement most concert films (and concerts) 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 the best friend whose goofy, strident, horniness made ber blond danger (such as in HALLOWEEN)--lets fly as Riff. Her little lithe body bouncing around covered in the bright shiny colors that had not yet come to signify the encroaching 1980s, is sexy in its utter lack of sexuality. Her tendency to make funny faces, bug her eyes out, tighten and purse her already thin lips all help to keep her vivid as real-life teenager rather than jail-bait. 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. And her kind would not come again.


All of which I say to preface the fact that 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! Let the falling limbs and gym mats be as an absolving blackened blanket.


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.

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