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‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High’ at 40: How the Ramones and a Rebellious Female Lead Invaded Theaters

"Well, I don't care about history," sang Joey Ramone — but we do care about the history of this cult classic, as recounted by Allan Arkush.

In the late 1970s, Roger Corman was looking to produce a high school-themed movie. Knowing that one of his young directing proteges had a bent for music, the head of New World Pictures had an idea. As Allan Arkush remembers Corman telling him: I’ve been thinking, since ‘Grease’ and ‘Saturday Night Fever’ are hits, why don’t you put music in it and we’ll call it ‘Disco High’?”

Fortunately, as “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” took shape, cooler heads prevailed … and nothing could be cooler than the Ramones, then, in 1979, or now, even after most of the band members have passed on. It was 40 years ago this week that the film had its New York City opening, which was part of a very, very staggered release pattern for a low-budget project that came to stand in the upper ranks of almost everyone’s list of essential music movies.

Prior to its release, you may have never heard of the Ramones outside of New York City or Los Angeles, but that all changed by the late summer of 1979. What had started out as a teenage fantasy of Arkush’s only a decade earlier would go on to encapsulate an entire generation’s rebellious spirit by introducing punk-rock music to suburban America and a new, counterculture female character in Riff Randell, played by P.J. Soles. By the end of the film, a concert had let out and a school was gleefully blown up.

What teen or post-teen rebel wouldn’t walk out of the theater feeling invigorated? But more importantly, who would be allowed to make such a movie? 

“When I was in high school [in New Jersey], I would stare out of the window and make scenarios in my head, daydreaming of crazy thing I’d like to happen at school,” Arkush says today. “One vision was having my favorite band come play a concert. As a teenager in the ‘60s, I envisioned the Rolling Stones or the Yardbirds. I knew then it would make for a great movie.”

Allan’s filmmaking ambitions landed him at NYU’s budding film school. Then, on the recommendation of a friend, he was offered a small job at a real movie studio in California. But this was not like any other studio. Enter Roger Corman and his New World Pictures, a low-budget dream factory consisting of eager, young post-grad film students working for little pay in exchange for the opportunity to make movies.

The legendary B-movie master Corman made his name and fortune on fast and cheap films, often considered crude and outlandish, appealing to younger audiences who frequented drive-ins and late-night screenings. Although disregarded by mainstream film enthusiasts of the time, many late 20th century filmmakers whom we revere today got their start working for Corman, including Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, James Cameron and Jonathan Demme.

For Arkush, the pay was low but the education was invaluable under Corman’s tutelage. He worked wherever he was needed, from answering phones to handling marketing to editing trailers of international releases acquired by New World, including Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord.” Arkush was among a small team of fellow soon-to-be prominent directors like Joe Dante and Jonathan Demme who were film lovers first, above anything else.

Rising through the ranks at New World Pictures, Arkush transitioned from editing trailers to co-directing “Hollywood Boulevard” with Joe Dante, along with working second unit on Ron Howard’s “Grand Theft Auto” and earning another co-directing credit for helping complete “Deathsport.” Throughout his dues-paying, Arkush, along with writer Joseph McBride, pitched Corman on his dream project. Looking to produce a high school-themed movie anyway, having gone through a few failed self-imposed ideas like a project titled “Girl’s Gym,” Corman gave Arkush the go-ahead to go ahead with his concept for an irreverent rock musical.

CREDIT: Courtesy of Allan Arkush

The idea of a green light for “Rock ’n’ Roll High School” is nearly unimaginable today. Picture it: A strong, defiant female lead, living in the suburbs, idolizing a little-known punk-rock band from New York City, campaigns to see their upcoming concert, skips school, pisses off the principal, rejects the popular kids and assists in blowing up her high school. Could a film like this find an audience? Arkush didn’t have a doubt. 

Equipped with the support of producer Michael Finnell, new writing duo Richard Whitley and Russ Dvonch, plus friends McBride and Dante, all Arkush needed was the right band to star. After so-so meetings with Todd Rundgren and Cheap Trick, Warner Bros. Records offered up Van Halen and the newly-signed Devo, but they didn’t quite fit Arkush’s vision. Brainstorming continued.

Arkush, who was a fan of New York’s budding punk-rock scene and had worked as a Fillmore East usher in his college days, desired a grittier group. Warner then suggested the Ramones. Bingo! Arkush was already a fan. “’Rocket to Russia’ was one of my favorite albums,” he recalled.

The Ramones were exactly who Arkush was searching for — badass, rebellious, unruly — the perfect band to disrupt suburban America. He went to see Sire Records’ Seymour and Linda Stein. “…and they blow up the school at the end of the movie,” Arkush explained by the end of the meeting. “We’re in!” declared Linda Stein.

Arkush knew the Ramones may be a difficult sell to moviegoers. They hadn’t yet reached national popularity, partially due to the stigma of their genre. “The Sex Pistols made a bad impression on Americans and punk music was considered a dirty word,” Allan recalls. “They wanted to refer to the Ramones as ‘new wave’ and not ‘punk.’ Blondie was the only punkish band who had broken onto the radio. When the Ramones were booked for tours, they got paired with Black Sabbath and it was a disaster. [Sabbath] fans would throw stuff at them. Because of this, they were an outlier band, and that suited the movie.”

Produced for under $300,000 and shot in 23 days at various locations around Los Angeles, including Mount Carmel High School, the Mayan Theatre, the Roxy and Whisky A Go Go, “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” was ready for release by the spring of 1979.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the film’s specific release date. Corman only made 100-150 prints. Always more interested in saving money, he never wanted his films to exceed 89 minutes — four reels to one can. Therefore, “Rock ’n’ Roll High School” did not have a wide release but rather toured the country, one market at a time, like a band itself.

After disastrous late April screenings in Texas and New Mexico, Arkush asked New World to wait until June for its next release in San Francisco so he could time screenings around Ramones gigs in the area. Frisco fared better.  

By July, the film was booked in Chicago on double bills alongside “Dawn of the Dead” or revivals of the still-thriving “Grease.” The pairings worked. Audiences stayed to see the Ramones on screen, finding the film both comical and uplifting. Siskel & Ebert loved it too and advised it play best at midnight. By August, it hit New York and screened throughout the U.S. for a year thereafter. 

Riff Randell, played by P.J. Soles, quickly became an inspiring female figure to teenage girls around the country. Says Arkush, “When people come up to me now to discuss the movie, 40 percent are men and 60 percent are women who not only liked the Ramones but loved Riff Randell and the fact that she’s so determining, she doesn’t take shit from anyone — she’s funny, has a ton of attitude and could give a shit what you think.”

In the four decades since “Rock ’n’ Roll High School’s” release, Arkush, now 71, has had a successful career as an Emmy-winning television director and producer with credits including “Ally McBeal,” “Crossing Jordan,” “Heroes,” “Nashville,” “The Good Fight,” the “Temptations” miniseries and more. But ask him what he’s most proud of? He just smiles and says, “This film is my legacy” — slightly choking up as he reminisces about his days working for Roger Corman and his New World class of misfits.

CREDIT: Courtesy of Allan Arkush

Remaining a friend of Joey Ramone’s until his death in 2001, Arkush still speaks at Ramones tributes and “Rock ’n’ Roll High School” film screenings whenever asked. His teenage dream personified a subculture and its relatable angst. Although the film as once envisioned by Corman probably would have been interesting, too, let’s all thank Arkush for not agreeing to “Disco High.”

Raj Tawney is an essayist and journalist in New York with a concentration on culture and Hollywood history. Recent contributions include the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, LA Weekly, New York Daily News, the Independent, Miami Herald, and more.

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