Rock ’n’ Roll High School

Rock ’n’ Roll High School (1978)
New Concorde
Cast: P.J. Soles
Extras: Commentary Track, Interview, Audio Outtakes, Radio Spots, Trailers, Cast & Crew Biographies

On April 15, 2001 Joey Ramone (Jeff Hyman), front man for the seminal New York punk rock band The Ramones, passed away. In the wake of this unexpected tragedy, fans began pulling out old albums and CDs to fondly revisit the energetic music that made the band so beloved by so many. Collectors also began to scour the Internet for the out-of-print DVD of "Rock ’n’ Roll High School" and soon the going price had skyrocketed. But within days, New Concorde announced that a new special edition DVD was on the way under their "Roger Corman Classics" banner and, at long last, that disc has arrived.

When I first heard that Joey Ramone had died, images from "Rock ’n’ Roll High School" immediately came to mind. I barely knew who the band was when I first saw this movie on late night cable television but I immediately understood that this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill rock band. Later I came to appreciate The Ramones as the groundbreaking musicians they were and their laid back, yet energetic, performance in this movie amply conveys the character traits that have made them so popular.

"Rock ’n’ Roll High School" is one of the few comedies put out by Roger Corman and he handed the directorial duties to Allan Arkush. The first job for the young director was to convince Corman to change the name from "Disco High" and to okay his choice of The Ramones to portray the featured band in the movie. Fortunately for the film’s fans, both decisions were approved and the rest, as they say, is cult movie history.

Riff Randell (P.J. Soles) is a surprisingly clean-cut Ramones fan who has penned a song for them and hopes to deliver it in person when they come to town. But the new iron-fisted principal at Vince Lombardi High, Miss Togar (Mary Woronov), has decided to declare all-out war on rock ’n’ roll. Rounding up her pals Tom (Vincent Van Patten) and Eaglebauer (Clint Howard), Riff heads out to see the concert and meet her heroes in person. Soon thereafter, the teachers and parents hold a little vinyl-fueled bonfire and the outraged kids set out to teach the stodgy adults a lesson. With the help of The Ramones, they take over the school and mass rock ’n’ roll mayhem ensues.

"Rock ’n’ Roll High School" is presented in non-<$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> preserving the 1.85:1 aspect ratio of its original theatrical release. I know that some folks will read that the disc is not <$16x9,anamorphic> and immediately decide to skip it but to those of us who are used to seeing this film on late night cable or shoddy theatrical revival prints, the transfer on this new DVD is a marked improvement.
First and foremost it’s important to remember that this was a low-budget, drive-in movie and that Roger Corman has never been know for carefully preserving his film elements. That being said, the overall image quality is fairly good. Colors are solid for the most part although a few scenes exhibit some bleeding and hue shifts. Black levels are actually better than expected although darker sequences still appear muddy. The transfer is a tad soft but I’ve never seen the film look otherwise. There are also a number of blemishes carried over from the original film elements but they are never terribly distracting. Film grain is evident as well in addition to some compression artifacts. It might not sound like a great video presentation but for a Roger Corman flick "Rock ’n’ Roll High School" looks pretty solid. Faint praise indeed but there you have it.

Audio is presented in an English <$DD,Dolby Digital> 2.0 mono mix. Like the video, this soundtrack is somewhat better than fans are accustomed to but still falls short of being a winner. Dynamic range is understandably limited and there is a fair amount of distortion evident. Quiet passages exhibit a bit of hiss but, as silence is a real rarity for this film, it’s never terribly noticeable. When The Ramones kick it in gear the track really begins to show its limitations with some serious high end distortion. But, once again, this is par for the course for a Roger Corman production and I can’t say that I was expecting much from the audio presentation.

"Rock ’n’ Roll High School" is billed as a special edition and it carries over extras from the previous laserdisc and DVD releases as well as including a few new goodies. Of primary interest is a recycled commentary featuring director Allan Arkush, producer Michael Finnell, and screenwriter Richard Whitley. I point out that it’s an older track only so listeners won’t think the folks involved are remiss in not mentioning Joey’s passing. This is a lively and entertaining commentary and I never tire of hearing people who worked for Roger Corman alternately praising the man and cursing him for his cheapness. There are so many behind-the-scenes stories related that fans of the film really mustn’t skip this feature.

Next are a number of rather in depth cast and crew biographies. This is followed by a five-minute interview with Roger Corman conducted by Leonard Maltin. It’s nice to get the big man’s take on many of the same topics discussed in the commentary and for what it’s worth, it’s clear that Maltin is a big fan of the film. Next up is a short text introduction and thank you from Allan Arkush. The first part is culled from the earlier laserdisc while the remainder is a new bit incorporating Arkush’s tribute to Joey Ramone.

Appearing next is a special features section entitled simply "Ramones." Within this section are three subgroups. First is "Back to the Rockatorium" which takes the viewer directly to the 12-minute concert within the film. Next is a biography of Joey Ramone. Finally, "Audio Outtakes at the Roxy" offers up the original audio from the live performance by The Ramone’s which was filmed for the movie. The audio was later overdubbed for the film so this is what it sounded like live. The audio from this 15-minute segment plays over a series of black and white stills from the movie. Good stuff.

Finally, a special features section entitled "Rock ’n’ Roll High School Locker" offers a look at the original call sheets, a recruiting flyer for extras for the Roxy performance, a number of cast and crew quotes, and some original radio spots for the film.

From the main menu the viewer can also access the "Preview Attractions" section which houses theatrical trailers for a few other Roger Corman classics. Oddly enough, no trailer for "Rock ’n’ Roll High School" is included. Rounding out the extras is a nice 22-page booklet featuring interviews and essays pulled from the original press materials.

As for the new DVD special edition, it’s really a mixed bag. On technical merit the disc falls well short of what we’ve come to expect for DVDs but it compares very well to previous releases in the "Roger Corman Classics" line. A little restoration work would have gone a long way toward making this a killer special edition but what’s there is certainly passable and, as I’ve already mentioned, is better than most previous incarnations of the film on home video.

In any case, the plentiful bonus features more than make up for the subpar video and audio quality. The wealth of extras rounded up for this release is amazing and I can’t imagine any self-respecting fan of the film being disappointed. I know that I’ll be spinning the live concert audio quite often myself.

"Rock ’n’ Roll High School" is something of an oddity even for a Roger Corman production. Instead of the usual horror or exploitation film we’re instead treated to a musical comedy — a genre that all but died in the mid-1960s. I guess a soundtrack featuring The Ramones, Devo, and The Velvet Underground, among others, can’t really be classified as a typical musical but then, very little about this film is typical. "Rock ’n’ Roll High School" is flat-out fun from beginning to end and it isn’t a stretch to state that they just don’t make them like this anymore. New Concorde has delivered a nice special edition DVD and fans of the film and The Ramones should be able to look beyond its limitations and just enjoy the show. "Gabba Gabba Hey!"