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The Awkward Movie Challenge: Rock n’ Roll High School

August 19, 2009 By: Category: Greatest Hits, The Awkward Movie Challenge


According to Netflix, Mike and Jeffrey agree with each other on movies 84% of the time. In their weekly feature, The Awkward Movie Challenge, they search valiantly for that sweet 16% that results in big arguments and big laughs.


August 24th marks the 30th anniversary of Rock n’ Roll High School, the movie that is best known for introducing the world to beloved film star Clint Howard. Also, some band called the Ramones is in it. The three principal Ramones (Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee) have sadly passed on to that great Gabba Gabba in the sky, but, luckily, director Allan Arkush had the smarts to preserve the young pinheads in celluloid for future generations to enjoy. It would’ve been nice if the film he constructed around them wasn’t painfully unfunny, but I suppose we have to take what we can get.

Rock n’ Roll High School centers around the struggle between Miss Togar (Mary Woronov), principal of Vince Lombardi High, and Riff Randall (P.J. Soles), “rock n’ roller.” After a brief introductory scene in which we meet school brain Kate Rambeau (Dey Young) and football star Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten), we join Miss Togar in a school board meeting. While Miss Toger is informing the school board of her intentions to clean up the school, Riff hijacks the P.A. system and welcomes everyone to “Rock n’ Roll High School.” Which is really just Vince Lombardi High School with rock songs on the P.A. The crowd goes wild, because they think she’s going to play some Grand Funk Railroad.

Eaglebauer's bathroom troll cave.

Eaglebauer's bathroom troll cave.

But then she plays the Ramones, which the kids decide is okay, too. Until mean Miss Togar comes along with her two henchmen and snips the plug on the stereo system to prove her point that the students should be learning instead of dancing. To which I say: go back to Russia, you witch! Everyone knows that in America, learning is for squares.

After that, we begin the poorly sketched-out subplots that make up the bulk of the film. Tom wants to get laid, so he goes to visit Eaglebauer (Clint Howard), a strange student/man/troll who operates a thriving consulting business out of a stall in the boys’ bathroom. Eaglebauer tries to hook Tom up with Kate, but Tom wants Riff, because she oozes ten-year-old boy sex appeal.

The scene that launched 1,000 American Apparel ads.

The scene that launched 1,000 American Apparel ads.

Meanwhile, Riff ditches school to spend four days waiting in line for Ramones tickets. Also, she is a songwriter who has written a song called “Rock n’ Roll High School” that she wants the Ramones to sing. She waits. And waits. And then the Ramones show up in their Ramonesmobile to mercifully take us away from the plot with a song. Finally, Riff gets her tickets, (she buys 100!) which is big local news, because everyone in Vince Lombardi-ville or wherever they live is waiting breathlessly to find out who will be the first person to get Ramones tickets.

Mary Woronov as Miss Togar, the only bearable performance in the film.

Mary Woronov as Miss Togar

Miss Togar sees the article in the newspaper and takes Riff and Kate’s tickets away from them. What a witch! If only Riff hadn’t given away the 98 other tickets she bought! But, them’s the breaks. Of course, being ever resilient, Riff manages to win two tickets to the show in a radio contest. Hooray! It’s back on!

From there, we head to the Ramones concert, which is basically a Ramones concert interspersed with a series of wacky hi-jinks. I haven’t mentioned the running joke about the giant mice, mostly because it made absolutely no sense to me. But here’s a picture of one anyway, just so you feel like you’re in the loop:

Rodentia Retardus

The Ramones play their songs, we see a weird fish-eye angle of Joey, Miss Togar’s toadies break into the show and manhandle a Ramones groupie, Tom and Kate fall in love (just like TomKat!), and Riff finally manages to get her songs to her idols. After the concert, we spend some time backstage with the Ramones, and hoo boy are they great actors! In the DVD extras, they include footage of the Ramones collecting the Academy Award for Good Movie Acting, which they totally deserved.



The day after the concert, the kids are all hopped up on rock n’ roll, and so they take over the school, and then the Ramones stop by to tell Riff how much they love her songs, and there’s a big showdown between the parents and the students, and the kids blow up the school, and the Ramones play “Rock n’ Roll High School,” and Miss Togar goes insane. Mission accomplished. The end.

Party at the end of the world.

Party at the end of the world.

Rock n’ Roll High School has always struck me as a movie that wants to be a lot more fun and subversive than it really is. For a movie called Rock n’ Roll High School, it has very little to do with high school. The campus is beautiful, the teachers we get to meet are pretty cool, and the students are all fresh-faced and well-adjusted. The main problem seems to be that they’re not allowed to just hang out all day. I mean, okay, punk rock or whatever, but the actors in this movie are about as punk rock as a Village People reunion. About as punk rock as a rollerblading class. About as punk rock as a Hostess factory. Do any of those work? Not really.

This guy knows what I'm talking about.

This guy knows what I'm talking about.

And then there are the jokes. The jokes in this movie are bad. Really, really bad. Excruciatingly bad. Worse than the “punk rock” jokes I just made. They are one step above “knock knock” jokes. Example: “I only use my math book on special equations.” Ugh. Just ugh.

The Ramones are a great band. There is no disputing that. And it’s fun to see them young and, um, still alive. But this is not their finest moment. If you want to see a good, campy flick that does a much better job of embodying the spirit of punk rock and youthful rebellion, skip this turd and rent the amazing Japanese rock flick Wild Zero instead. Or for a chilling take on a very similar plot, check out the great Matt Dillon youth-in-revolt flick, Over the Edge. Either of those films, I would give 6 pizzas. Rock n’ Roll High School deserves 2: 2 for the Ramones and 0 for everything else.


Next: Mike makes mincemeat out of Jeffrey’s ill-conceived opinions and embarrassingly shallow knowledge of musical history!

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9 Comments to “The Awkward Movie Challenge: Rock n’ Roll High School”

  1. “This isn’t ‘Kids Sit Obediently at Their Desks and Get Good Grades High School,’ because that movie sucks.”

    Hey! I loved that movie!

  2. How did I know you would?

  3. And I quote your review of “Ghostbusters” “A comedy has one job to do … make me laugh.” This movie does not make me laugh, even though it tries really, really hard. If the Ramones were not in it, I think your review would be completely different.

    My problem with it is not that I would rather the kids “sit obediently at their desks and get good grades,” it’s that every single kid in the movie looks like they would rather be sitting at their desks and studying. If John Waters would have made this movie, it would’ve been filthy, perverse, and altogether rock n’ roll. Instead, it’s a wholesome, PG movie by square adults that pretends to capture the spirit of rock n’ roll and, in my humble opinion, fails miserably.

    I will grant you that P.J. Soles turns in a good performance, and the crack about her looking like a ten-year-old boy was just for pure amusement’s sake. And Mary Woronov is fantastic. But I really don’t have any fun watching this movie, even though everything on the screen is screaming at me to do so.

  4. Yes, a comedy is supposed to make you laugh, but I view this more as a Rock & Roll movie than a comedy. It generally isn’t very funny (although I do think it’s consistently amusing), but the music is great and I never feel like I’m being manipulated into having a great time. My review would be different if, say, the Carpenters were the central band, but then it would be a completely different movie. The Ramones may not have a ton of screen-time, but their presence is felt throughout the picture. That it isn’t filthy or perverse also fits in with the Ramones-persona, because they were a relatively wholesome band. If the Stones were at the center of the movie, it would feel really disingenuous.

    I also disagree that the kids look like they’d rather be sitting at their desks and studying. They look like they’re having a lot of fun during that dance number in the gym to me.

  5. P.S. The closest movie John Waters ever made to ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll High School’ is ‘Cry Baby’, which is his most wholesome film, so your assumption may not hold water.

  6. But what are they rebelling against? Yes, I recognize it’s a silly cartoon, and I’m not looking for deep political insight. But give me something. Everyone in this movie is joyously happy, all the time! The only thing they’re pissed about is that Miss Togar’s a bitch. And why is she a bitch? Because she doesn’t want them playing rock n’ roll on the PA? If this movie’s a live-action cartoon, then make it a cartoon! Show her locking up kids in a dungeon and forcing them to listen to Mantovani!

    So as a result, the ending feels completely unearned to me. I don’t care how low-budget or goofy a movie is, it’s just pure laziness to show me one thing (Vince Lombardi High School is a nonstop blast in which the kids basically do whatever they want at all times) and tell me another (the kids hate high school so much that they blow the place up.)

    And I don’t really understand the distinction between “comedy” and “rock n’ roll movie” in this situation. This movie is packed to the gills with bad jokes. It is a comedy, and it isn’t funny. Sure, there’s good music on the soundtrack, but I don’t really see how that has anything to do with the quality of the film. I can listen to the Velvet Underground on my own time, thank you very much.

    Also, John Waters was not making movies like Cry Baby in 1979, so I don’t see how that’s really pertinent. But I would say in terms of pure rock n’ roll energy and fun, campy nastiness, Cry Baby has it all over Rock n’ Roll High School.

  7. Dude, there are giant mice in this movie. How much cartoonier does it need to be? And she does confiscate their Ramones tickets. If that isn’t a declaration of war, I don’t know what is.

    And the distinction here between Rock & Roll movie and comedy is the same as the distinction between drama and Rock & Roll movie when viewing ‘Purple Rain’. You love that movie, but don’t tell me you get caught up in its anemic dramatic situations.

  8. No, agreed, but Purple Rain is structured differently, in that a performance or video follows almost every scene. Rock n’ Roll High School saves most of the performance for the concert, 3/4 of the way through the movie. Which, absolutely, I think everyone should watch that part of the film. It’s the rest that I have objections to.

    And, I laugh a lot harder at Morris Day than I do at anything in this movie. Save for the last line: “I’m in the phone book under Sccccreeeeamin!” Now that’s funny.

    As for the cartoonishness of it, certainly, it is plenty cartoony right now, but that doesn’t address my central complaint … that Miss Togar is a rather toothless villain. Wolonov chews the hell out of the scenery, but I don’t see much to fear in her other than the fact that she wears a tight bun and business suits. Arkush couldn’t have included one scene showing how miserable it is to go to school at Vince Lombardi High? The nerd character sure has it tough, but his misery is played for laughs … another bummer about the plot. Riff isn’t the underdog, she’s the most popular girl in school. I think in order for a movie to truly be rock n’ roll, the characters should be outsiders. Unless they’re the Beatles, in which case, they can do whatever the fuck they want to do.

  9. I agree about the nerd-abuse, but perhaps we’re both a little extra sensitive about this issue since we’re both nerd-Americans.


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