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Interview: Allan Arkush on "Rock 'n' Roll High School"

by Peter Sobczynski

The director of the cult classic featuring the Ramones talks about its legacy on the eve of a new Blu-Ray release.

When "Rock 'n' Roll High School" emerged from Roger Corman's New World Pictures in 1979, it was, after a couple of initial stumbles, hailed as an instant cult classic by moviegoers and a number of astute critics alike. There had, of course, been any number of low-budget exploitation movies made over the years that combined hip teenagers, clueless old people, dumb jokes, sex, drugs, cheerful anarchy and killer soundtracks. However, few had ever assembled those basic elements in the way that this particular film had. Chronicling the battle for the hearts, minds and souls of the student body of Vince Lombardi High School between newly installed authoritarian Principal Evelyn Togar (cult goddess Mary Woronov at her craziest) and Riff Randell (PJ Soles), a fun-loving student who just wants to rock out to the music of her favorite group, the iconic punk band The Ramones. The conflict between the two continues to escalate as the band arrives in town for a concert and eventually leads to the students, the sympathetic music teacher (Paul Bartel) and the Ramones themselves not only taking over the school but--Spoiler Alert--literally blowing it up as the film's iconic title song plays. And yet, as much as things have changed in the days since the film first came out, "Rock 'n' Roll High School"--as a recent viewing of the new special edition Blu-Ray now available from Shout! Factory can confirm--still remains as fresh, vital and compulsively entertaining as ever.

The film was largely the brainchild of Allan Arkush, whose cinematic and musical bonafides made him the ideal person to direct it--he studied film at NYU (with Martin Scorsese as one of his teachers at one point) and worked at the legendary Fillmore East concert venue in the late Sixties before going to Hollywood to work alongside Joe Dante in the trailer department at Roger Corman's New World Pictures, a gig that led to him making his directorial debut alongside Dante on the wonderfully bizarre micro-budget Corman in-joke known as "Hollywood Boulevard." After that came "Rock 'n' Roll High School" and Arkush then went on to direct such films as the Andy Kaufman oddity "Heartbeeps" (1981), the hilarious Fillmore East tribute/spoof "Get Crazy" (1983), a film that deserves a Blu-Ray special edition of its own in order to properly preserve Malcolm McDowell and Lou Reed expertly spoofing Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, "Caddyshack II" (1988), "Shake, Rattle and Rock!" (1994), "The Temptations" (1998) and episodes of such shows as "L.A. Law," "Moonlighting," "Heroes," "NCIS" and "The Good Fight."

To promote the release of the new Blu-Ray, featuring a new 4K scan of the film and a new feature-length documentary on the history of the film featuring most of the surviving participants, Arkush got on the phone to discuss how such an unusual film managed to get made in the first place, why it continues to resonate with new generations of moviegoers and how a pair of film critics from Chicago managed to help prevent it from slipping into obscurity.

Every time that I have watched "Rock 'n' Roll High School" in the years since it first came out--and it has been a lot--I always find myself fascinated by just how radical of a film it really is, not just by today's standards but by those one would normally apply to a low-budget exploitation film made in America in the late 1970s. For example, the central character, Riff Randall, is not only a female but she is one who is not in any way defined by her sexuality. It was based around the music of the Ramones, who were not only a punk rock band but one that at the time was a cult act that was not particularly well-known outside of their New York stomping grounds. Perhaps most significantly, it is a film that ends with the kids literally blowing up their high school without facing any repercussions, a conclusion that is literally unthinkable today. Can you walk through how a film that was originally proposed as a project known variously as "Girls Gym" and "Disco High" transformed in such subversive ways into what it became?

I was constantly getting in trouble in school because I was against the war in Vietnam. I was trying to take books out of the school library that had been banned. That is where that aspect of the movie comes from--that feeling of the counterculture that comes from Riff. That is where Riff fits into me. When I worked at the Fillmore East as an usher and on the stage crew in the Sixties, when it was the premier rock theater, I saw every important band of the classic rock era. I was friends with these three women who came in every weekend for every show--they would buy the cheapest tickets and hang out in the lobby and we would talk about music. That is where Riff Randall comes from because they weren't sex bombs. They dressed outrageously and they were very knowledgable--they had all the records when they came out. I respected them and it was fun to talk with them. Gail and I went to see the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden in 1969 at the show that was filmed for "Gimme Shelter"--we were in the third row.

At some point in my college years, I saw Lindsay Anderson's "If. . ." and that really struck a note for me. I identified heavily with Malcolm McDowell in it. There was also the French movie "Zero for Conduct." Then when I first started working for Roger Corman, I wanted to write a movie and thought about writing a high school movie. There was a Todd Rundgren record that had a song on it called "Heavy Metal Kids" and that was a key because I liked the name of it and I thought it should be about the kids and that the kids should be rebellious. When Roger started to let me develop the high school movie, it was called "Girls Gym" and it had to have nude gymnastics--that was kind of the deal. Every Corman movie had a scene like that because it would sell. You had to deliver these sellable aspects but then everything else was up to you, which was a great freedom. That is how Jonathan Demme got to make "Caged Heat" and that is how all those movies got made that had other things going on beyond the main elements. It was truly independent filmmaking and we were outlaws. It isn't like indie filmmaking now,

Joe McBride, who wrote the first couple of drafts, came up with the idea of the students going on strike because that had happened to someone in his family. He really responded to that and he was the one who suggested blowing up the high school, which I was against at first. Then, after about a week or so, it seemed like the right thing to do. It is interesting that in all the years since this movie has been made and all the terrible violence that has happened in high schools, there has never been a reference to this film in any news report or article. The context of the school blowing up in this silly movie kind of works in a different way--it is insurrectional but it is so contextualized in what I was trying to do that it seems to go by everyone. It is very fantasy-oriented, the movie. There is this underlying theme that rock music supplies you in your adolescent years a window into your fantasy life. When you listen to a song, you think about what the songs are about and the images that it creates in your head. Also, when you are young, it gives you another group to bond with. The people who all like the Ramones are people that you identify with and you start dressing like them. All of that is part of the Riff Randall experience. Riff is a girl from the suburbs and maybe she was a cheerleader at some point but now she is into punk

It all comes back to Roger Corman. The was originally supposed to be "Girls Gym" and was going to be part of his "three girls" genre. Stewardesses, nurses, cover girl models. These movies all had three girls in them and each one had a specific definition. There would be a blond and she would usually be the comedic one. There was a "diverse" character and she usually carried some kind of political story. There was a brunette and she would go back and forth between the other two stories. This was originally in the genre and if it was going to be a high school movie, it pretty much had to have a female lead. That was fine with me because I always visualized it as being with a young woman because I remembered those women I knew from the Fillmore. I think that is the main reason that this movie has continued to go on for more than 40 years. People come up to me and say "You directed "Rock n Roll High School" I've directed a number of films and TV shows and crew members on those films come up to me and want to talk about it. The guys always mention that they used to watch it with their friends and they used to get loaded and think it was hilarious. The women come up and talk about Riff Randall empowered them and that it was so great to see a woman in a movie who was cool, who didnít take shit from anyone and who just wanted to rock out and was a leader. That is so gratifying to me, that that is what comes off in this movie.

The Ramones are the engine that keeps it in the public eye but we never thought that the Ramones were going to be primal to American rock culture. They were, as you accurately put it, punk rock and maybe a half-step away from the Sex Pistols. They could only play Ramones shows--they could not just play on a bill with anybody. They went on a tour while we were shooting with Black Sabbath and they were booed and had stuff thrown at them. You had to like the Ramones in order to like the Ramones, if you know what I mean.

Those three disparate elements kind of came together in my mind and there was not a single moment when I did not think that they would go together. It all seemed to make complete sense.

At what point in the process did the Ramones become involved in the project. There were other music acts that had been considered for the film--Todd Rundgren, Cheap Trick and Van Halen among them--and considering how consumed with the Ramones the final film is, it stands to reason that it would have had a considerably different tone and feel if, say, Van Halen had been in it instead.

At the beginning of my rock n roll fandom, which started in grammar school listening to Murray the K, I was in a record store--it might have been Bleecker Bob's--and I saw this magazine called "Crawdaddy." It was about rock n roll and it treated it seriously. I picked it up and I began to realize that you could think about rock in the same way that these college classes I was taking analyzed Robert Frost. Here is Jon Landau analyzing the Supremes or the Four Tops or all the things that make rock music so transcendent. I started taking the music seriously . I started reading things in the Village Voice about a place called CBGB's and Sire Records and that is why I bought the first Taking Heads album. Then Robert Christgau gave the first Ramones album an A. I bought it and played it and though "Shit, he got this completely wrong." Remember, I am now separate from the scene and I am listening to this record in which every song sounds alike to me. I don't give up and I listen to it a bunch of times. Then I had a bunch of friends like Joe Dante over to watch a movie. They asked what I was listening to and I said "Oh, you gotta hear this." I didnít play the whole thing--I played ten seconds of one song and then skipped to the next--and it was then that I realized how funny it was and that it was supposed to sound alike and that the words were meant to be funny. That turned the corner for me and when I heard "Rocket to Russia," I thought it was one of the greatest albums I had ever heard and realized that the Ramones were like the Beach Boys backed by chainsaws. That is what they were and that is why they were so glorious.

Then we were trying to find the band and the issue became trying to find music that you would blow up your high school to and have it still be funny. It was a fine line. We tried it with a couple of songs by the Clash--we put "White Riot" in there--and it just turned the tone. That is why we were thinking about Cheap Trick--they were funny and they rocked hard. The Ramones came up in the middle of a meeting with Warner Brothers with the head of A&R, who was cool--he was impressed that we had heard of every band that he had been talking about and we werenít just movie people dabbling in music. He mentioned the Ramones and I said, "Shit, I love "Rocket to Russia!"" How does that fit into the story, though? I thought about a high school girl from the suburbs who was crazy in love with Joey Ramone and how that was a funny idea. What could be further from Earth than Joey Ramone? The more I thought about it, the more right it felt. We then had a meeting with Danny Fields, who at Elektra had discovered the MC5 and Iggy Pop and had been an important part of promoting the punk rock scene in New York. He was the Ramones manager along with Linda Stein, who was married to Seymour Stein, who owned Sire Records. We met with them and as I was telling them the story of the movie and plugging in Ramones songs, I was realizing how right it was as I was saying it out loud. They are really listening to this closely--in my memory, i think they were constantly smoking joints--and when I get to the end, I tell them that the Ramones start playing the theme song of the movie as the kids blow up the high school behind them, they jumped up from their chairs and said "We're in!" They so got it.

Then I went to New York to meet with the Ramones. All that behind-the-scenes stuff with them in the film is what they were. Seymour had bought this beautiful Italian dinner so that I could sit down with the Ramones and have dinner and talk with them on the second night that I met them. Dee Dee comes in, looks at the dinner and says "I thought we were having Italian food!" Seymour says "This is Italian food" and Dee Dee goes "This isn't Italian food. Whereís the fucking pizza?" Joey, to protect his voice, would drink this hemoton. A lot of the stuff in the movie came from that. It was Johnnyís idea to put the sticker on the teacherís back that said "Kick Me." Everyone's favorite line from the movie came from Richard Whitley, which is "Do your parents know you're Ramones?"

Beyond the Ramones, how did the casting come about? The film has a great combination of up-and-coming actors as well as familiar faces from the Corman era like Dick Miller, Mary Woronov and Paul Bartel. Hell, even Grady Sutton turns up for a brief bit.

Grady Sutton looks exactly like the gym teacher from Fort Lee High School that used to torture me. If you want to get really obscure, the person that we went to before Grady Sutton was Joe De Rita from the Three Stooges. He was retired and didnít want to lose his pension, so Grady got in. It was so great because I loved the old W.C. Fields movies and he was always hilarious in them, so that was really cool.

We met with a lot of terrific young actresses. I think Daryl Hannah came in and read. Rosanna Arquette was someone who we were down to the finals with along with PJ. PJ's manager told us that we had to come see her in this movie that they were having a sneak preview of that night on Hollywood Boulevard. So we went out and saw the sneak preview of "Halloween." That is a great movie and it played like gangbusters and PJ was perfect in it. After that, PJ was a lock and we talked about maybe having Jamie Lee Curtis in it but that somehow didnít work out. The last person to come in and read for the other part was Dey Young. We lost the actress that we had cast and she came in and was the character. Eaglebauer was easy to cast because Clint Howard and I had worked together on "Grand Theft Auto" and we were friends. At New World, you didnít just work with people, you bonded with them because we were all the same age.

Imagine a movie company completely comprised of film students in their 20s. There has never been another place like that. All the people were really educated in film and Roger was very smart about that. He learned from us and we obviously learned a tremendous amount from him. That is why New World had that tremendous level of success then--he had a bunch of baby boomers who had grown up watching his movies and who understood his aesthetic. We were also film students and so when he was distributing foreign movies and we were cutting the trailers, he didnít have to explain Fellini to us. It wasn't like he was going to some trailer outfit--we understood what those movies meant to us. That is why they were so successful--the passion of the people that were promoting them. He had this movie in the dustbin that hadnít done well before we got there called "The Harder They Come." We watched it and thought "Holy shit--this is a really good movie." This was not a blaxploitation movie, which was how the trailer company before us had sold it. Then we found out that it was going to be playing at midnight and we talked Roger into letting us make another trailer that would emphasize the reggae music and the cult nature of the movie and that helped save the picture.

The film has a wide array of musical sequences ranging from full-out production numbers to some amazing concert footage of the Ramones. Can you talk about how these were executed, especially considering that you were presumably doing them under extreme budget and time constraints?

An incredibly tight schedule. There are many musical homages in it. "Do You Wanna Dance" is my homage to "The Band Wagon" and the classic MGM musicals. It is all front lit with popping colors and a lot of energy, though I obviously did not try to do it in one shot like Vincente Minnelli did. The one in the bedroom, that is an almost exact copy of the scene in "The Girl Canít Help It" where Julie London sings "Cry Me a River." I always knew that Joey would turn up in her bedroom and sing and when I saw "Cry Me a River," that gave me the structure for the scene. If you go to YouTube and play the two scenes back-to-back, you will really have a good laugh because they are almost exact. The concert scene came out of all the great concerts that I had ever been to. To me, a great rock band is one that may not make it to the end of a song without exploding or like a car going down a mountain road that could go off the road and crash at any second. That was the feeling that I wanted to get in the concert scene. Of course, because I am that kind of guy, I then threw jokes on top of everything. You've got the scalper slam-dancing with the mouse. Youíve got "D-U-B-M.Ē You have these layers of rock intensity and also humor.

What was the process of actually directing the Ramones like?

They were uncomfortable being on camera and when Dee Dee had the "Hey, pizza!" line, it took 14 takes. Johnny was pretty good with all that stuff and Joey had OCD, so he was hiding a lot. He comes across so sweet on camera. Over the years, I stayed friends with him and Joey. His birthday was in May and I would usually be in New York because of the presentations of the new TV shows. I would go over to his apartment and he would play me music by bands that I really needed to know about, which is how I learned about AC/DC and Metallica. He could play KISS all he wanted but it would never work for me--I am just admitting that now. We he did his solo record, he did that Louis Armstrong song "What a Wonderful World" but he really didnít know Louis Armstrong's music, so I made him a mixtape. My daughters have a Ramones sweatshirt that Joey gave me and I gave him a bootleg of the Who at the Fillmore East in a show that we both attended as fans. We shared so much music together and we were friends.

"Rock 'n' Roll High School" has long been enshrined as a cult classic but it was not a hit right out of the box. What went on during the original release period and how did it manage to come back?

Joe Dante, Jon Davison and I were basically the trailer department--we did the ads and all that stuff. We had Roger's ear but the guy in charge of distribution at New World didn't always have Rogerís ear. He didn't always agree with us and he certainly did not like the movie at all. He thought I had packed the sneak preview, which I did not--the theatre was filled with punks because of where the theatre was. He didn't like the movie, he didn't think it was salable and so he tried to book it as quickly as possible in order to get it out of the way. We had made a deal with Sire Records to have the album come out and the whole point was to sell it like "Saturday Night Fever" by having both an album and a movie. He didnít want to wait for that deal and since he could get some bookings in Texas in April, he went ahead and did that and it was horrible. Nobody in Texas or New Mexico would go out to see a Ramones movie. We had this deal with Sire and so they were pissed off. It may have looked like the film was dead in the distributor's eyes but I convinced them to do another release of it. Back then, they only released in areas and only made enough prints to cover one territory. The next territory was San Francisco and the Ramones were going to be playing there. We tied those together even though the album wasn't done yet, and it did okay.

Now we are barely hanging on by our fingernails and it was supposed to open in Chicago. Whoever was in charge of New World's distribution in the Chicago area was a really, really smart person. They had made a fortune on "Eat My Dust," "Grand Theft Auto," "Jackson County Jail"--all these movies did incredibly well in Chicago because he knew what theaters would work and what double bills would work. He booked "Rock n Roll High School" in a hundred theaters but what he did was, instead of just picking any other movie to double-bill with, there was a re-release that weekend of "Grease." We were in fifty theaters with "Grease" and fifty with "Dawn of the Dead" and how perfect is that? With those, you are going to have a hell of a double-bill.

Because they didnít have press screenings for the film, I think that Siskel & Ebert went out and saw it in a theater. They wrote really nice reviews of it in the newspapers. It opened the same weekend as the new James Bond movie and they wrote that it was better than James Bond. Then they went on their TV show and gave it a really great review and I think Roger Ebert said that it was a film that would go really well as a midnight movie and this distributor guy booked it at midnight two weeks later. We then went around the country doing that kind of booking--putting it on a double-bill with films that seemed to appeal to our target audience. It sounds pretty obvious but it wasnít necessarily the way that it went. Then when that run was done, which was usually two weeks, it would go in at midnight and it has been going strong ever since.

link directly to this feature at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=4200
originally posted: 11/24/19 21:20:24
last updated: 11/24/19 21:31:07
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