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It Came From the Cultosphere: The Ramones’ Explosive ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’

‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,’ director Allan Arkush’s 1979 ode to teen rebellion, is the sort of glorious mess where all the almost accidental elements that could have made something terrible instead created something totally glorious.

Roger Corman notoriously wanted to make a movie that cashed in on the disco craze, but Arkush wisely convinced him that disco wouldn’t have the same action-packed edge as rock ‘n’ roll. Then, in searching for a group, the producers supposedly considered Cheap Trick and Devo but ultimately – and thankfully — chose the Ramones. It would turn out to be the movie’s masterstroke.

The Ramones are the perfect centerpiece for the film because they’re so damned unlikely. Would Riff Randell, the film’s teen queen (played by PJ Soles, who was almost 30 in 1979) really dream of writing a tune for the slovenly boys from Queens? Of course not — just like handsome Vincent Van Patten wouldn’t be a terrified of girls and have to seek help from uber-geek Clint Howard.

‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’ also offers cult film stars Mary Woronov and the late Paul Bartel as members of the Vince Lombardi High faculty. Woronov plays Principal Togar, the formidable villain of the movie, and Bartel plays music teacher Mr. McGree, who takes off his stuffed shirt to reveal a Ramones T. We don’t know if Arkush and company were hip to how welcoming the Ramones music could actually be, but McGree’s transformation from uptight square to rock ‘n’ roll revolutionary is a perfect illustration.

And then there are the Ramones themselves. Making an unforgettable first appearance in a convertible with a “GABBA GABBA HEY” license plate, they shamble gloriously through the film. Onstage, of course, they’re the picture of punk confidence and energy, but in their non-musical moments they’re hilariously awkward, either flubbing their lines completely or delivering them in an infectiously off-kilter manner. Whatever they’re doing, it can’t really be called acting, but somehow that adds to the charm of the whole thing.

And when they pick up those instruments, the movie really soars. The concert is electrifying, but better than that is the moment late in the movie when, after Riff and the rest of the students have taken over the school, we cut to Marky banging that drum, and, well, why not see for yourself:

The movie could end there — on a crazy, kooky altogether joyous note — but what really makes ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’ special is that it takes things one step further, giving us one last reminder that this isn’t your typical Hollywood high school musical. Riff, the Ramones and the rest of the class exit the building, then this happens …

You never see a movie — even a goofy, silly cartoon of a movie — end with a school blowing up. But the truth is, the movie needs that explosive finale as an exclamation point to all that’s come before. Kids in the audience — hell, kids everywhere, no matter whether they’re watching the movie or not — daydream about their institution of secondary education erupting in a huge fireball.

It’s not a Columbine thing. It’s a common student fantasy. You don’t want anyone to get hurt — heck, you don’t even want the school to blow up. You just want to relieve some of that tension that’s been building since kindergarten, and your adolescent brain figures a big explosion is the most direct way. Then, once you’ve imagined that blast, you can go back to focusing on your studies. It’s as American as apple pie. ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’ delivers that fantasy in such an appealing, cheery, downright upbeat manner that you can’t help but cheer on Riff and her fellow students.

And the song ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’ never sounds better than when it’s punctuated with those perfectly timed booms. Gabba gabba hey indeed.

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