Poor Ramones. You never got the respect you so rightly deserved. You languished away in the darkest days of the music business, battling disco for just the smallest snatch of pop culture consideration. Before you knew it, your fortunes faded as New Wave gave video the chance undermine your mantle. By the time Green Day and Fall Out Boy were stealing your strategy, you were imploding internally, destined to break up just as your old school skyrocket was prepped for the launching pad. Then, to make matters worse, you had to go and die off one by one: first the iconic Joey; then the drugged-out Dee Dee; and finally the talented taskmaster Johnny. Granted, you managed to find yourself in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but a mere decade after your disbanding, you live on as myth more than musicians. Case in point: Rock 'N' Roll High School. This crazy comedy from producer Roger Corman and director Allan Arkush stands as the sole significant cinematic statement of your time as ersatz trendsetters. Luckily, it's one of the great schlock classics of all time, a brazen B-movie that lets you do what you do best - simply be Ramones.
Things are so out of hand at Vince Lombardi High School that the administration feels pressured to make a change. So it's out with the old (coot) and in with Ms. Evelyn Togar (Mary Woronov), a dime-store despot with antiquated ideas about discipline and respect. First on her hit list--punk queen Riff Randell (P.J. Soles). This lunchtime rabble-rouser loves to play her favorite Ramones records over the loudspeaker for the entire campus to enjoy. She's usually joined by Kate Rambeau (Dey Young), an honor student with the hots for football star Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten). As Togar begins her reign of terror, Kate consults Vince Lombardi High's notorious backdoor deal broker, Eaglebauer (Clint Howard) about a date with Tom. When approached, the quarterback admits a thing for Riff. As the romantic angles are ironed out, the student body discovers that Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, and Marky are about to play a concert in town. Such a showcase sets up battle lines between Togar, Riff, and all the students of Rock 'N' Roll High School.
It's incredibly corny. It features actors several years out of adolescence doing the whole high-school kiddie turn. It lunges headlong into impossibly exciting musical moments, and even features a Joe Dante-directed gymnasium set piece featuring lots of female flesh encased in curve-exploiting spandex. Yet it never makes the Top Ten list of great cinematic treasures - go figure. For fans of the greatest proto-punk band in the world - the one and only Ramones - Rock 'N' Roll High School remains an unbelievable benchmark. With each of their first four albums a genuine work of three chord art and an influential reach that circumnavigated the globe (just ask the Clash or the Sex Pistols where they'd be without the bruddah's slash-and-burn bop), these would-be superstars became barely-breaking-even journeymen. The lack of appreciation in their native US is criminal, compared to their beloved status around the world. So it's with a semi-heavy heart that a fan approaches the band's one and only appearance on the big screen. It represents potential and possibility in a form so giddy it makes a teenage lobotomy seem sensible by contrast.
Indeed, Rock 'N' Roll High School is a glorified goof, a movie loaded with the kind of creaky comedy that your dino-driving grandfather would have relished. What began as a classic Roger Corman merchandising brainstorm (he originally wanted to call it Disco High and feature a guaranteed "get up and boogie" soundtrack) was slowly switched over into a piece of perfect punk rock retardation. From the stellar casting to the kinetic concert material, filmmaker Allan Arkush (with some help from the rest of the New World Pictures crew) saw a chance to champion his favorite form of sonic boom and really ran with it. The combination of old-fashioned juvenile delinquency drama peppered with the emerging idea of self-referential campiness created an entertainment anomaly--a movie that shouldn't work but ends up doing so brilliantly and unabashedly. Toss in a treasure trove of Ramones classics (including "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Pinhead," and the title track) and you've got the makings of a major misguided classic. Not a closed-off cult film, mind you, but an honest-to-goodness mainstream comedy with legitimate laughs and a leather-encased heart.
Among the cast, Clint Howard is a standout. Always more approachable than his Oscar-winning sibling, the former kickass kid vid star (hey, Ronnie doesn't have a Star Trek credit to his name now, does he?) was at an amiable awkward stage when Rock 'N' Roll High School came along. His terrific turn as Eaglebauer is remembered as much for his collection of memorable lines. Along with PJ Soles, who more or less owns the film's subtle sexual center - cool yet approachable, rebellious yet realistic - as Riff Randell, Howard helps keep many of the more tenuous tendencies afloat. In addition, Mary Woronov milks the role of Evelyn Togar for all she can, imparting it with a sense of sinister seriousness that makes her the perfect villain. On a final note, it is important to praise Vincent Van Patten. More or less given the most thankless role in the film (discernible dork, unlucky in love, clueless to the culture around him), he turns his leading-man loser into a likeable sort of stooge. We can sympathize with his fading personal fortunes because, in his struggles, we see a little of our own angst shining through.
Thanks to Arkush's no nonsense approach to directing - he's not out to make a certain statement, just a damn fine film - and a script overloaded with purposeful and inadvertent hilarity, we end up with something that stands up over repeated viewings and the passage of time. Unless you are The Beatles, your onscreen efforts are usually less than memorable (say hello, Herman's Hermits). But because Rock 'N' Roll High School is a comedy first, a musical memento second, it's more of a movie and less of a snapshot of some artist's fading fortunes. It's just a shame that the Ramones were such bad actors. Many of the scenes planned for the band had to be shaved since the boys had a hard time delivering even the simplest sentence coherently. But in the seminal punk rock rejects, Arkush found an unfettered sense of solemnity, an unapologetically pure love of music and the making of same. Today, a myriad of artists patently owe their very existence to this fiery foursome. But had they survived to see the new millennium, they'd still be a tough act to embrace. That's just the way they are. That's why they're Ramones.
High-def or not, cinematography by Dean Cundey (Halloween, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? ) aside, there is one thing to remember about Rock 'N' Roll High School. It was a cheapie made in 20 days, and its looks it. All the transfer over to Blu-ray earns the film is a pristine, if still rather average, 1.85:1 1080p image. Sure, there are details present that have been lost in other versions. For example, there is so much spandexed nipple during the all-girl gym sequence that it borders on softcore, and Joey's dreaded fish-eye lens close-up reveals even more mandatory dental issues. The concert does look good polished and presented in the superior video format, but other bits (the opening rock out, almost anything in Togar's office) have a softness that seems odd - and old. Again, this is the absolute best this movie has ever looked - from theatrical run to last DVD release. Don't expect an optical revelation and you will be more than satisfied.
Now, here's the bad news. Shout! Factory has not opted to remix the movie and provide a multichannel True HD version of the soundtrack. Instead, while listed on the cover art as having such an option, Rock 'N' Roll High School comes in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo - and that's it. All five options (film and four commentaries) offer the same sonic situation. The music really suffers in such a presentation, providing none of the depth, immersion, or clarity you expect from the format. The dialogue is easily discernible, but Arkush says several times that this is "old school Mono, baby" and that's how the aural elements feel - flat, tinny, and thin. It seems strange that in 2010, with all the technological options available, that a Blu-ray of a prominent release would end up with a standard DVD audio offering, but that's the case here.
Set up like a school locker and accessed by picking out the proper "textbook", the bonus features offered on this Blu-ray are a hodgepodge of previous releases and intriguing new to the format content. As mentioned before, there are four commentaries. Two have been ported over from previous DVD/Laserdisc versions of the film (a talk with actress Young and Producer Corman and a discussion between Arkush,and Producer Mike Finnell and Screenwriter Richard Whitley ), while the other two are being presented for the first time. They include a discussion between the director, Soles, and Howard, and a final one featuring Whitley and collaborator Russ Dvonch. All are incredibly interesting and wistful in their wide-eyed nostalgia for the time, the band, and the way they made movies.
Next up are a series of new interviews. Arkush steps up to explain the film's preproduction process. He is joined by Corman, Dante, Young, and Marky Ramone. Young, Soles, and Vince Van Patten then sit down for a little reunion and reminiscence. Arkush then goes solo and expands on the film's musical history. Finally, Corman settles down with film critic Leonard Maltin to discuss his career and Rock 'N' Roll High School's place within it. Add in a TV spot, some trailers, a photo gallery, a series of radio ads, a 20 page booklet with articles and additional Q&As, and the Ramones raw live mix from the Roxy appearance (audio only) and you have a wealth of added content, even if some of it has been floating out there for a while.
There is a great deal of historical happenstance involved with Rock 'N' Roll High School's formation. Originally, such lyrical luminaries as Todd Rundgren, Cheap Trick, Devo, and Van Halen were considered for the pivotal role of rock act, and any one of those choices would have changed the dynamic of the movie irreparably. They wouldn't have been bad; they just wouldn't have been the Ramones. With Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Marky, the movie becomes an embarrassment of rags to riches, a wonderful argument for the power in punk and the vitality of four freakish lads from New York City. The comedy and coming of age material just makes the experience that much more memorable. Aside from the sound issue, this Blu-ray deserves a Highly Recommended rating. The film itself deserves it. The bonus material deserves it. The shined up image deserves it - and the Ramones deserve it. Frankly, they are owed much more than they ever received...and that's a shame. Luckily, Rock 'N' Roll High School is a lasting testament to who they really were - loud, fast, and a whole lotta fun!
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