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Soundtracking: Rock 'n' Roll High School

by Chris Feil

This day and age the jukebox musical has moved firmly into passé territory, a product that plays squarely to a built-in audience usually of the nostalgic variety. It’s hard to imagine anything shaking the subgenre up when it’s now become a factory for your dad’s favorite bands to make a little extra cash. But the jukebox musical didn’t start with your dad’s regular bands, it started with your dad’s cool bands. Reader, how is the Ramones’ Rock ‘n’ Roll High School celebrating it’s 40th anniversary?!

Some will bristle at this jukebox musical categorization. In fairness, it not only seems uncool to call it such, but the film is from a time before such terms existed (though surely there are other pre-term examples). But that’s just what Joey Ramone and his band did, and before it went mainstream. It’s as silly as any other musical group’s stab at lending their catalog to a flimsy narrative, but it’s also as cool as the very best of them. It’s a small scale, heterosexual Mamma Mia! in the very best sense.

While jukebox musicals weren’t really yet a thing, this one seems as bent on skewering musicals as it is corny high school sagas. The prime target here is Grease obviously, presenting a sweaty chaos antidote to that musical’s chipper demeanor. Whereas Grease is floridly composed to capture iconic choreography and young romance, High School delights in mess. These students shake and thrust about in a frame that can barely capture them all, flailing around in anti-choreography to match the band’s dichotomy of thrashings and catchy melody.

In this way it breaks the laws of what had been the opulent movie musical. Yet the Ramones’ bopping ebullience feels right at home in the unpretentious throws of the genre’s trademarks. The film is as comfortable delighting in camp traditions of dastardly villains (blowing up mice, no less) and archetypes as it is in using its punk force to laugh at the genre’s prerequisites of pristine composition.

It’s not just the sound of The Ramones and giddy anarchy of composition that the film uses to upend musical tradition, it’s Joey Ramone himself. The film positions him as its main teen idol and lothario yet he has to be one of the most defiantly, hilariously uncharismatic screen sex symbol of all time - certainly in upbeat musicals. The point is that charm or beauty or even a modicum of awareness that you’re, you know, on camera are all demands of a genre archetype that can be shattered to pieces. His non-screen presence is part of the subversion and especially the fun.

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School even becomes more of a concert film in its final act, further blurring the lines between the framework its supposed to follow. Then when its finale arrives and its hero, P.J. Soles’ Riff Randell, declares that her peers don’t need their institution to define the rules, the film both reinforces the genre’s traditional arc and snubs its limitations - all while remaining true to what the Ramones are emblematic of in their musical prime. Most jukebox musicals wish they embodied the spirit of their source material as well as this.

All Soundtracking installments can be found here!

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Reader Comments (7)

I'm not the first to say this, but the crowded shots in this movie really are like classic Mad Magazine panels. There are always a dozen things happening at once, minimum.

April 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDave S.

I'm biased here - I went to the same high school as The Ramones so it feels like it is about my high school.

April 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterReady

PJ Soles, between this and Halloween, she's a true legend!

April 3, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterhaajen

I fucking love this film. The Ramones. What is there to say about them?

April 3, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

Saw this film in 8th grade and I wanted to destroy my grade school. Do your parents know you’re a Ramone? Everything ‘music’ scene in this film is great. MTV videos don’t compare to these scenes. Love the PJ in gym, the Ramona’s in concert, love when they pull up to the ticket booth singing and Joey throwing a chicken leg. Live on Ramones!

April 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTOM

PJ Soles 4ever!

April 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Mary Woronov--comedic goddess.

April 5, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

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