The Ramones in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School! What a great idea! But what a terrible movie! As Penelope Gilliatt would say, were she to stoop so low as to review a Roger Corman film, we are in Vince Lombardi High School. Trouble is afoot. The old principal has been fitted for a straitjacket; the new principal, played by an actress who seems not to have gotten over failing the Hot Lips Houlihan audition for M*A*S*H, has taken over. Resident Ramones fan Riff Randell, played by giddy P.J. Soles, plugs Road to Ruin into the school P.A., and the battle is on.
Subplots have to do with whether Riff will make it to the upcoming Ramones concert and convince the band to do the song she’s written for them (yes), whether mousy-but-blossoming Kate will ever seduce Square Tom (not really), and whether Square Tom will fulfill his greatest dream and get laid before he’s 30 (probably not).
This isn’t fair, of course. More than two decades of auteur criticism have shown us that, especially in a B movie, it’s not the surface drama that counts, but the mise en scene. Well, if Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is to be rescued from the scrap heap of cinema history, we may need a new critical theory. Here, even the bits you want to like—the kid who functions as a sort of high school Milo Minderbinder, for one—seem obvious even though they’re not. The Ramones, heroes of New York punk and one of the more overrated bands in the world, seem vaguely uncomfortable; except on stage, they retreat into blankness, which doesn’t exactly burn up the screen. Though their music sounds good on the soundtrack (not as the rebel statement the film tries to make it, but as relief), and you believe it when the kids go wild for them, they’re walking though the fifties prom-crisis movie clichés that have been substituted for new ideas. There’s hardly a moment of surprise in the whole film: Instead of the insane glee of Animal House, which Rock ‘n’ Roll High School desperately (and coldly) wants to emulate, we get lots of fast cutting.
The only real glee in the movie comes from P. J. Soles—her eyes shine with it. Vamping in her baseball cap, she was the sexiest thing in Carrie; save for a bright little scene in which she fantasizes taking her clothes off in front of the Ramones, who display something less than a healthy interest in what she has to show them, she’s not allowed to be sexy. She tries to carry the film with pure energy—running, jumping, talking nonstop—but it’s a noble effort in a lost cause. When the kids finally blow up Vince Lombardi High and the Ramones rock out in celebration, the central message conveyed is that the movie must be over.
When I was in high school, I listened to the Beach Boys: to “Shut Down” and “409” for kicks, but also to the really heartfelt stuff, like “In My Room,” or the Safaris’ wonderful variation on the theme, “Image of a Girl.” The idea was that happiness—or merely the ability to walk among one’s peers without terminal embarrassment—was simply out of reach, and to many high schoolers, that was a very reassuring thing to hear. It meant you weren’t alone.
That’s what I hear today in Boston, or perhaps I should say in the music of writer, producer, guitarist and keyboard player Tom Scholz. Don’t Look Back (Epic), the group’s second album, came out last year, and time has proven it to contain three masterpieces: the title cut; “Used to Bad News,” which is all about taking it like a man; and “A Man I’ll Never Be,” which, in a nice inversion of the Safaris’ old concept, has to do with how hard it is to live up to a girl’s image of a boy. Anyone can be rough and cool—performers like Eddie Money, Foreigner or Bad Company are less rock bands than marketing strategies designed to exploit male fantasies of mastery—but it takes a certain genius to combine the richest, most thrilling post-Hendrix melodrama with sentiments of absolute inadequacy. If the Ramones’ persona is that of the upwardly mobile pinhead, Boston’s is braver: the wimp redeemed.
The wimp is redeemed through texture, layer upon layer of Scholz’s sound, an affirmation of how much the wimp can feel. It’s the very ordinariness of his suffering that’s covered with glory; texture becomes a form of majesty, of grandeur. Opening “A Man I’ll Never Be,” singer Brad Delp could not seem more trivial, more insufferable, but within seconds the whole band, or rather the whole concept—hundreds and hundreds of guitars are riding him toward destiny—has raised him to a windswept cliff. With clouds exploding all around, he makes his stand: “You look up at me/And somewhere in your mind you see/A man I’ll never be.” For almost seven minutes he pleads for peace of mind, and though he never gets it, he is allowed a sense of self, of justification, and one comes away convinced that existence, no matter how miserable, is not meaningless. Coming off the radio at an unexpected moment, it sounds like Terry the Toad, that poor sucker from American Graffiti, getting advice about growing up from Zeus.
Apropos of Governor Jerry Brown’s recent African experience with Linda Ronstadt, Lieutenant Governor Mike Curb was moved to comment that he, too, once made a connection with Ms. R: as the producer of Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys’ 1965 cover version of “So Fine.” As a correspondent from the San Francisco Chronicle reported, Curb was quick to point out that he was speaking of a remake of the 1958 hit by the Fiestas, as opposed to “You’re So Fine” (italics added), a 1959 hit by the Falcons—the records having been often confused over the years.
While one can only applaud the fact that the intricacies of rock ‘n’ roll history are now to be considered alongside the other pressing questions of the day—such as Jerry Brown’s contention, as regards Curb’s right to exercise full gubernatorial powers when the governor is absent from the state, that the constitution’s reference to “absence from the state” does not mean “mere physical nonpresence,” but, presumably, absence from some higher state, like the astral plane—one must call a bluff when a bluff is made. Curb’s remarks are only one more example of his slick, seemingly “forthright” way of appearing to clarify an issue while in truth distorting it beyond recognition. Though one can perhaps discount the date of 1958 for “So Fine” as a misattribution on the part of the reporter (as everyone knows, the record came out in 1959), Curb’s attempt to restrict discussion of the “Fine” genre to the songs mentioned is nothing less than shocking. “So Fine,” far from being most often confused with “You’re So Fine,” is almost always confused with the 1963 hit by the Chiffons, “He’s So Fine“—and Curb surely knows it. (This is to say nothing of Darlene Love’s “A Fine, Fine Boy.”) The voters of California, no matter how misguided they may have shown themselves to be, deserve better.
There is no Real Life Rock Top Ten in this issue because the pickings were so dismally slim.
New West, June 4, 1979