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"EXUBERANCE IS BEAUTY," William Blake wrote, but he might balk today if he saw Joey Ramone. The funniest line of this movie belongs to a Ramones groupie--"I love Joey Ramone because he's so handsome...." Yet exuberant the Ramones are, and you'd expect them to make a movie the way they write a song--with good spirits, no subtlety and a lot of loud pounding. Rock and Roll High School is like that, only the adolescent fury that propels a two-and-a-half minute song can't sustain a 100-minute movie.
Vince Lombardi High School, the movie's back-drop, indiscriminately mixes atmospheres of mid-'70s boredom and early '60s California youth culture. For the first 15 minutes, Rock and Roll High School could be an updated surfing movie, just as the Ramones are in a sense punk's answer to the Beach Boys. The jokes are the oldest in the book--football players stuff freshmen in closets; a shy, bespectacled girl sidles up to a football captain; the wonks display gadgets at a "science fair."
The movie might go on like Animal House at the secondary school level, but for Riff Randall (P.J. Soles), a blitzkrieg teenybopper who plays "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" over the school's public address system and lifts the whole movie out of its doldrums. Soles is the only real performer here--aside from the Ramones, of course, she plays the cheerleader-like Ramones groupie with enough cuteness and savvy to give her a fighting chance against the awkward screenplay.
Even with Soles, though, the first half of the movie is tiresome. As a new principal, with two obnoxiously unfunny hall monitors in tow, takes over Vince Lombardi and tries to restore order, you might consider buying popcorn or ducking into the theater next door to watch well-scrubbed adolescent girls in Peppermint Soda. Just make sure you're back in your seat by the time Joey Ramone snaps, "Hey! Ho! Let's go!" and launches into "Blitzkrieg Bop," because the ten-minute Ramones set is the movie's best part.
Soles and her friend--one of those movie females who starts very plain but steadily grows better-looking--slip into a local Ramones show despite the connivances of the fascistic principal. In the funniest scene of the movie, Soles invades the band's dressing room, forces on them some songs she's written, convinces them to visit Lombardi High the next day, and sheepishly leaves.
The Ramones themselves--bird-like Joey, Johnny with the hair over his eyes, and the other two--steal this scene, and the others they're in. They come across as comical, friendly, even beneficent, despite the leather and fake frozen sneers. A full-fledged Ramones movie starring the band--a sort of latter-day Hard Day's Night--would have made a lot more sense than what director Allan Arkush has given us.
Next day, the band arrives at the school, amid the principal's "final solution"--a massive vinyl-burning. We watch horrified as Who's Next, Sticky Fingers and Rocket to Russia go up in foul-smelling smoke. But Soles breaks into the principal's office and, with the P.A.'s aid, turns Lombardi into "Rock and Roll High School." The kids go wild, the Ramones break into "Do You Wanna Dance," and in a scene of mayhem they rip the school apart--in the end actually blowing it up.
EXCEPT FOR THE RAMONES and Soles, there's little to recommend Rock and Roll High School. Most of the jokes are silly, like this one--a fellow in Indian dress walks along the ticket line for the Ramones gig: "A scalper," one fan tells another knowingly. The soundtrack is good--music by Eno and Nick Lowe side by side with Alice Cooper and Todd Rundgren. (If you want to hear live Ramones recordings, though, don't buy this soundtrack album; get a double-album import called It's Alive, four uninterrupted sides of lobotomized thumping.)
The Ramones undoubtedly have something more to say to kids than "get lobotomized" or "get sedated," but it's not just "blow up your schools," as Rock and Roll High School makes it seem. Their songs are hymns to pure energy, and their movie ought to be more tightly-paced, faster-rhythmed. Rock and Roll High School smothers the Ramones with a thick glue-snort of T.V.-style jokes and befuddles any attempt to understand their spirit.
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