Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” (1979) is a movie about a teen-aged songwriter absolutely determined to meet her favorite band so they can play her songs. She cuts school and camps out in front of the venue to get concert tickets for everyone at her school, and when she meets the object of her adoration, they play her songs. When the principle of her high school bans the music, things blow up! The LA Beat recently talked with the filmmakers about the making of their cult classic, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary.
Screenwriter Rich Whitley grew up loving movies. A class clown whose parents discussed movies and books with him, from the Marx Brothers to Dorothy Parker, he drove his 1974 blue Dodge Dart Swinger across the country to Los Angeles to fulfill his filmmaking dream after graduating Southern Illinois University Film School. “I put everything I owned into my car, with the TV and typewriter in the front seat, of course. The two most important things.”
He lived in a studio apartment in the Valley across from Universal Studios and wrote all day. He lived on free meals from Craft Services after sneaking onto movie studio lots during production. He’d heard Spielberg did that, so why couldn’t he? Whitley’s dad, who grew up in the WWII Depression-era, wanted him to major in business. He worried his son would become homeless. “Why didn’t you get a degree in business?” asked his dad.
“Because I love movies. I’m making movies,” said Whitley, his youthful determination like a green shoot finding the light. Whitley’s student film got him his big chance–and a career as a working screenwriter.
Whitley and his friend, Russ Dvonch, a co-screenwriter of “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” (who also played the character of “The Freshman” in the movie, and gets shoved in both a locker and a filing cabinet!), with whom he attended college and who’d moved to Hollywood a few months earlier, took their 16 mm student films (in cans!) to Roger Corman’s office at New World Pictures, where director, Allan Arkush, just happened to be that day.
Arkush and producer Mike Finnell were working on a project for Corman called “Girl’s Gym.” But Arkush wanted something different…
A lifelong music collector from the suburbs of Jersey City, as a kid Allan Arkush loved TV and movie soundtracks and had a toy record player. He listened to Murray the K, who had a radio show, “The Swingin’ Soiree,” and who was known as “the Fifth Beatle”. He loved the romance of Doo Wop, and he watched Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” He loved music so much his parents moved the radio from the kitchen into his bedroom, which made him feel like he had a “window into the universe.” When he heard Lou Reed’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll” (1970), he felt the song was about him. And he “never recovered from the Beatles…to see all those girls screaming.” Arkush also saw Dylan go electric at Forest Hills.
When Arkush was a teen, he fantasized about bands such as the Rolling Stones or the Yardbirds or The Kinks visiting his high school. In 1965, Arkush found a list of must-read books in “The New York Times.” But the books were banned at Fort Lee High School. “That’s…the whole impetus of the principal trying to stop their music” in “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.” Teen-agers are told that what they like and what they feel is unimportant, explains Arkush, who transferred the rebellious, rock ‘n’ roll themes of films he liked such as “Shake, Rattle & Rock!” (1956) and “Rock All Night” (1957) to punk rock in his “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” (1979).
He studied film at NYU (where his parents could keep an eye on him), and read rock journalism. “‘Crawdaddy’ was a real game changer for me. All of a sudden, some people who were like me were treating rock as seriously as I was treating poetry.” During the day Arkush was taught by a recently graduated Martin Scorsese, and at night he worked as an usher for Bill Graham’s Fillmore East. Arkush worked the “top of the aisles,” which meant he could hang out in the lobby and get close to the stage (he makes a cameo in “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” as an usher!).
Arkush befriended three music fans from Queens at the Fillmore: Gayle, Diane, and Janice, all of whom dressed like the art-rock group, the GTO’s. “That scene where Riff Randell cuts school to wait on line to get tickets for The Ramones? That’s them.” That’s also the scene where Riff reads “Crawdaddy.”
“Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” started as a genre picture for Corman, says Arkush, or “the three-girl movie formula.” They were either nurses, teachers, models, or flight attendants, always including a blonde, a brunette, and a woman of color. There had to be naked breasts in the movie. “You had to deliver that, that’s why people would go…but beyond that you could do anything you wanted,” Arkush told me. “That was the deal with the devil.” But filmmakers had “other things on their mind and they expressed them in these characters,” explains Arkush. Plus, the women in prison/girl’s gym movies were a way to make your first picture.
“Future film historian, Joseph McBride, wrote the original drafts of “Girl’s Gym”, and his crucial creations of the students going on strike and then blowing up the school got Roger Corman to give the film the go-ahead,” which dropped the need for naked gymnastics, says Arkush. Corman saw the school’s explosion as saleable, and on the movie poster. And he still wanted it R-Rated.
But Arkush wanted “a broader approach, a demented musical comedy.” So he asked Whitley and Dvonch to rewrite 15-20 pages of “Girl’s Gym”, and they did, with Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, the Three Stooges, and old movies in mind. Meanwhile, Corman wanted to call the movie “Disco High,” because “Saturday Night Fever” (1977) was so popular. But Arkush “knew the disco music couldn’t fuel the students’ rebellion.” It had to be rock ‘n’ roll music. So he demonstrated to Corman how Pete Townshend smashed his guitar.
Arkush took Whitley and Dvonch to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. At Vine and Selma, Arkush showed them the Preston Sturges star, saying “This is who our inspiration should be.” Sturges was known for writing and directing deeply witty movies. Silly, but serious.
The filmmakers wanted Cheap Trick or Devo, but “they wanted too much money, so we got the Ramones, who made it perfect,” said Whitley. The Ramones were not well-known, but the band had devoted fans. “There was a “wonderful level of excitement,” Whitley remembers. It was like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in their films from the 1930s-1940s, saying,” ‘Let’s put on a show!’ ”
Arkush screened a 16mm print of “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) for the band at his home on Lexington between Highland and La Brea in Hollywood. Arkush perceived the film as a visual equivalent to The Beatles’s music. “The movie moved me as if I were listening to the radio,” and he especially liked the camera moves. Plus, it showed how lip-syncing could work. While there, Johnny noticed Arkush’s wall-to-wall record collection included the Grateful Dead. “Do you like these guys or what?” Johnny always ended everything with an “or what.” “How can you listen to this hippie shit and us?” Arkush told Johnny that the Dead and The Ramones were auteurs. “You’re stronger than the music. You’re an identity.”
I asked about the physical beauty of the cast. It would’ve been different, said Whitley, if the band had traditional good looks. Prior to “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School”, male musicians were promoted for their smoldering sex appeal or blue-eyed charm. The Ramones challenge conventional stereotypes of men. “It takes it to another level,” said Whitley. But Riff Randell, the songwriting teen girl, is thin and blonde and white. How is that a challenge to tradition? “She leads the rebellion and includes everyone,” Whitley observes. And Arkush tells me that their movie is “about female empowerment, ultimately. And she’s a true fan. And, it’s about people taking charge of their lives.” Her name is on the banner in the school take-over, she wrote the theme song, she’s a DJ, she hugs her own notebook of songs, and she’s knighted by guitars an Honorary Ramone. I notice that P.J. Soles, who plays Riff, has lead title in the film credits, which is rare for women.
Whitley says that the most emotional investment goes to the lead character. “We have an emotional investment in our female lead,” he said. Whitley tells me about a woman whose daughter dressed like Riff for Halloween, and a woman with a tattoo of Riff on her calf. Riff was a role model, he says. I remember one of my 12–step sponsors, who sang Riff’s praises. And it turns out Soles provided all the clothes for Riff’s character! People ask him what did Riff do next, did she start her own band? So I suggest he write a Part II movie all about what Riff does next. Don’t forget me, Rich Whitley! I want to be part of making that movie!
Arkush tells me that Julie London singing “Cry Me a River” in “The Girl Can’t Help It” (1956) inspired my favorite scene, when Riff Randell dreams that Joey Ramone serenades her in her bedroom. I love it! Dreamy and fun and from the woman’s point of view! Until Riff’s suddenly undressed. But, another great scene has an aspect that Whitley identifies as genuine, and it’s when one my favorite lines in any movie ever is spoken by Riff. It was ad–libbed by Soles, Whitley told me! She’s eating pizza with Kate, and they are talking about why Riff likes Joey. Riff says: “He looks like a poem to me.”
“The power of rock ‘n’ roll is to make everyone a believer,” says Arkush. A true believer is like Jenny in the Lou Reed song, “Rock ‘n’ Roll.” “It’s someone who believes in the redemptive power, who goes to a rock concert looking for transcendence,” says Arkush. It’s like that feeling when you hear your favorite song. “And it’s yours, ” says Whitley. “You’re not going to get out of the car until the song ends.” It’s a universal feeling privately experienced.
“Was Riff a groupie?” I muse aloud. “Riff thought of herself as an equal, and wanted to be a creative partner with The Ramones,” Whitley notes. I think about how in the late 1960s, it seemed as though women could equal men in creative and sexual power. Extraordinary women such as Cherry Vanilla, Cynthia Plaster Caster, and the GTOs made albums and art and influenced male musicians who were their friends and sometimes their lovers. Ten years later, “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” caused such pain in me when I first watched it. I worried about the fish and the mice in the movie, and felt so bad about Riff being disrobed and the body searches of female characters. But watching it again, all these years later, I see that the film actually tried to show how great life could be for both genders, free and fun and playful and creative. The film itself shows the difficulty in getting there: through rigid social structures that police music and women’s bodies (the Hall Monitors’ body search of Angel Dust, Kate, and Riff, and camera shots that do the same to women in their emphasis of sexualized body parts, for example). But it’s Riff’s best friend, the astrophysics student, Kate, who can (and does) make the bomb to blow up the school. And it’s Riff who propels the plot. “Her name is Riff,” I comment, thinking how riffs are powerful and drive the song (and the movie). “That was Allan’s idea,” Whitley tells me. I like the movie a whole lot better 40 years later!
Whitley, who also teaches scriptwriting at USC, said, “The movie doesn’t change. We do.”
He tells me, “Allan was the heart and soul of the movie.” I asked Arkush, who teaches at AFI, why the film is so popular. He tells me that the film taps into the teen-ager’s self-righteous indignation, plus “it’s funny and really stupid.” It’s based on real life, and Riff is relatable. I realize Allan Arkush is Riff Randell!
For the concert scenes (my other favorite scenes! What energy! What editing! What cinematography!), DJ Rodney Bingenheimer announced two-dollar tickets for the Ramones concert. Fans got to see the show for cheap, and the filmmakers got background actors for free. Darby Crash was in the audience, and GTO, Miss Mercy, was on the set.
Arkush brought in films on time and under budget. But two days before the end of the intense shooting schedule, Arkush collapsed on set. Close friend and co-writer of the original treatment, Joe Dante, took over and directed the memorable gym class version of the title song.
Back then, blowing up a school seemed cartoonish. They used a 3–camera set-up with well-known DP, Dean Cundey, stock footage, and didn’t really destroy anything. Most of the flames were in front of the school. The editing made it look like several explosions. Their on-set explosive expert showed up to work with missing fingers and a lot of scars so whatever he advised, the crew and cast took it further. For example, if the expert said stand ten feet back, they stood twenty.
I asked Arkush why the revolution music promised hasn’t happened. “The chance of failure went out of the music,” he answers. “The death of all art is preconceived notions.” That’s the mission of record companies, and also the death of non-indie movies, he says. Arkush blames the Baby Boomers. “We started becoming in charge, and we valued the money and we valued the success over the impulse that got us there in the first place.” Plus, the hours devoted to music shrunk.”The car was the sacred space for listening to music.” But now, people talk on their cell phones while driving. “When that went away…it became peripheral to the culture.” So, I think, video didn’t kill the radio star. Cellphones did. And the music “got more commercial, because it was selling,” explains Arkush. He thinks it’s what killed Joey Ramone.
Rock ‘n’ roll at its best, says Arkush, citing The Who and Iggy Pop and the Stooges, is when it sounds “like the band could explode before they get to the end of the song.” Like “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” the visual equivalent to a great rock ‘n’ roll song.
The Blu-ray DVD from Shout! Factory, re-released November 19, 2019, offers a newly lush 4K scan from the original camera negative, and includes interviews with the filmmakers and writers.