"Rock 'n' Roll High School," now playing at six local theaters, is not to be taken seriously - even by the juvenile rock fans who are its intended audience. And that's good, because otherwise we should get ready for an escalated replay of the late '60s, with high schools all over the country being taken over the students and blown to dust in last-ditch confrontations with "the power structure."
The story is simple, as befits a film whose teme music is punk rock: at Vince Lombardi High School (somewhere in Southern California), the students want to do nothing but listen to punk rock, while the new principal, Miss Togar, insists that they should try to learn something. When she finally stages a Nazi-style record-burning (mostly of the Ramones, but one notes with a twinge that "Highway 61 Revisited" is on the burning pile), the revolution is launched, the school is occupied and it could be 1968 again.
Once it becomes clear that they can't win, the students devise an explosive strategy (illustrating the slogan of the school and its eponym: "Winning isn't the most important thing, it's only thing." But before the end, the students have a few rapturous moments to show what the school could be: rocking in the corridors, an orgy in the shower room (decorously veiled by breast-high suds) and sadism in the cafeteria, where the white-uniformed workers are bound, gagged and stood up against the wall while the students throw food at them.
This final image occupies the screen for only a few moments, but in some ways it gets to the heart of the picture's unintentionally complicated symbolism. The student body at Vince Lombardi is overwhelmingly white and middle class. Anyone who has ever eaten cafeteria food can understand their motivation, but it is hard to accept the way they work it out. If you can't pull down the agribusiness structure, you tie up a few Hispanics and torture them. Torture them in a way that gives maximum insult to the Third World, by pelting them with food.
The campus unrest of the '60s generally was motivated by issues and principles - or, at least, that was the flavor of its rhetoric. But at Vince Lombardi High, the rhetoric and the gestures harmonize totally, and what they add up to is simple-minded self-indulgence, escapism masquerading as revolution.
This was not the audience reaction, however at a preview showing Wednesday night in the Ontario Theater, where the urban guerrilla sentiment drew tumultuous applause - and a big laugh when the kids started throwing food at the cafeteria workers.
Good performances, in a cast that faced no serious acting challenges, were given by Mary Woronov as the principal (a pretty fair imitation of Ilse Koch), P.J. Soles and Lynn Farrell as feuding rock fans, Don Steele as Screamin' Steve Stevens, a deejay, and Rob Bottin as a giant white mouse. The Ramones, given the assignment of playing themselves, did so flawlessly.
Why did an easygoing, simple-minded rock group that doesn't seem to be mad at anyone these days decide to be featured in such a movie? Guitarist Johnny Ramone has said it was because of their respect for executive producer Roger Corman:
"When I was a little kid I used to go to the pictures all the time. I saw all the Corman pictures, from 'Attack of the Crab Monsters' to 'The Little Shop of Horrors' and all of the Poe pictures and biker movies. When we found out Roger Corman was behind the picture, we said, 'Sure, we'll do it,' because we knew he had a reputation and we knew he made good movies."
"Rock 'n' Roll High School" is in that great tradition.