Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979) dir. Allan Arkush

7/11 @ Somerville Theatre


If you are looking at this website, you are likely aware of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. As a 1970s Roger Corman-produced drive-in film centered around a rapturous twenty minutes of peak-era Ramones performance footage, the film is a touchstone for fans of cult movies, punk rock, and a celebration of trash culture in general. So I won’t waste your time describing the film. If you’ve seen it, you know how great it is. If you haven’t, see it, or risk looking like one of Miss Togar’s hall monitors. It’s just a lot of fun.

What I will do instead is indulge in one of my favorite pop cultural “what if” scenarios. It is a much-repeated tidbit that Corman (just past fifty at the time) originally envisioned the film as Disco High, before director Allan Arkush and co-writer Joe Dante insisted that you can’t blow up a school to disco. What’s less well-known is that the Ramones were far from Arkush’s first choice, and that he weighed several then-hot alternatives before landing on the cult foursome. This in itself is not especially surprising. What fascinates me is how much the presence of each band considered would have dramatically altered the very genetic makeup of the film. Join me as I take a brief look at some saviors of Vince Lombardi High who could have been:

Despite being even cultier than the Ramones at the time (the breakthrough success of “Whip It” was still a year away), the Akron post-punk pioneers were at one point in serious running for the starring role. This makes some level of sense; few bands, then or now, have been as dynamic visually, making them a good candidate as the centerpiece of a brightly colored teen film. However, Arkush and his collaborators ultimately decided that Devo’s fully-formed mythology would have made for an awkward fit with the existing narrative, which is hard to disagree with. (If you really want to see what a Devo-fronted Rock ‘n’ Roll High School would have looked like, you can probably just watch their episode of Square Pegs).

Of the bands Arkush considered, Van Halen is the only one that ever got as big in the real world as they suppositionally were in the film. While, at face value, this would seem to make them the ideal candidates, it also makes them the least fun. Part of the joy of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is its glimpse into an alternate reality where the Ramones were the biggest band in the world and the dream of teenyboppers everywhere, something which, despite their influence, they never achieved. That karmic joy would be lost with someone like David Lee Roth, who would soon conquer the groupies of the world. Anyway, the filmmakers passed when they caught wind of the band’s hard-partying reputation, so we don’t have to worry about it.

Okay, this one is just weird. No slight intended against the genre-bending singer-songwriter-producer; the man crafted his share of pop hits, along with some mind-blowingly weird concept albums. It’s just difficult to imagine Runt’s elfin frame inspiring mass teenage rebellion, let alone Riff Randall whispering goodnight to her dog-eared copy of A Wizard, A True Star. Yet he was apparently Arkush’s first choice for the role, and only passed on the film when contract negotiations broke down—and not, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, because it would have made no goddamned sense.

Cheap Trick, on the other hand, would have actually made perfect sense—arguably even more than the Ramones. The band’s oddball, quasi-retro aesthetic would have complemented that of the film perfectly, and they did command the same kind of fawning adulation—just not in America. Unfortunately for Corman and company, the success of Live at Budokan put them out of New World’s price range. Which, of course, brings us to…

As tantalizing as it is to imagine the films which might have been, we should be thankful for the one we got. The Ramones were a quintessential American band—sneering punk and lovable bubblegum all at the same time—and, in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, they were given a vehicle that perfectly matched their joyously anarchic aesthetic. Sure, their acting skills lacked polish (Dee Dee’s dialogue was one line —”Hey, pizza! It’s great! Let’s dig in”—and he still blew it), but they brought to the film a charm impossible to replicate. Seriously, impossible.

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School
dir. Allan Arkush
93 min.

Click here for screening info

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