In the summer of 1979, punk rock entered the mainstream in a big way with the release of a teen-rebellion comedy by director Allan Arkush featuring the music of - and an extended appearance from - the Ramones.
Released on August 24 of that year, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School was the product of New World Pictures, the production company founded by legendary low-budget filmmaker Roger Corman...and please note that, at least in this particular instance, the phrase “low-budget filmmaker” is intended as nothing but the highest of praise. Precious few filmmakers can claim to have as many motion pictures featuring their name in the credits, and that’s the direct result of Corman’s ability to make the most of whatever he had on hand at any given moment and turn it into a film.
Having made several teen-centered films earlier in his career, Corman was of a mind to offer up a similar sort of motion picture for audiences in the late ‘70s, and to be perfectly honest, he wasn’t so much flying the flag of punk rock as he was trying to latch onto something that was popular with the kids. Case and point: the original title of the project was Disco High, which had emerged out of an initial story idea by Arkush and Joe Dante, and at another point it was tentatively called Heavy Metal Kids. Per an interview with Turner Classic Movies, Corman had originally wanted to have Cheap Trick or Todd Rundgren as the primary musical artist of the film, but when neither panned out due to scheduling conflicts, cast member Paul Bartel pitched the Ramones, and history was made.
The film starred P.J. Soles of Halloween fame as Riff Randell, a student at the notoriously rebellious Vince Lombardi High School, who loves the Ramones with all of her heart, waits in line for three days to buy a ticket to their show - not just to see them live, mind you, but to present Joey with the song she’s written for the band: a little ditty called “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.”
When Principal Togar (Mary Woronov) takes away Riff’s ticket, she embarks on a quest to find another way to attend the show, ultimately winning a radio contest, but in the meantime, Principal Togar teams up with school parents to host a rock ‘n’ roll record burning event. In turn, Riff teams up with the Ramones to take back the school, resulting in a famous encounter between Togar and the band when she poses the immortal question, “Do your parents know you’re Ramones?”
In her Random Roles interview with the A.V. Club, Woronov detailed her experiences on the film as well as her familiarity with the Ramones before taking on the project.
Mary Woronov: They just let me go. [Laughs.] Totally unstructured. I told Allan [Arkush], “Thank you for this role, because what I need is just a nice TV series, and I’m gonna do it like I’m Eve Arden.” And he said, “That’s fine, Mary.” And then they dressed me up and they gave me makeup, I showed up on set with all these punk-rockers, and… I just turned into Miss Togar. I didn’t even think about it. That was it. She was a scream for me.
A.V. Club: You said you’d been into punk at the time. Were you already familiar with the Ramones, then?
MW: I knew about them. But they were in New York, and the whole punk scene in New York was violently different from the punk scene in Los Angeles. The bands in Los Angeles were incredible, and I liked them, but they never got anywhere. Even the big band. Exene [Cervenka’s] band, X. I thought they were so L.A. I thought they were brilliant, I really did. I mean, not as eclectic as the Mau Maus or Fear or something like that, but why didn’t they go somewhere? When they were raw, they were good.
AVC: Do you have a particular favorite Miss Hogar line?
MW: No, but everybody else does. There’s the “little worm” thing. [“Lick my boot, you little worm!”] I like her because, one, she’s about power. She’s really a portrait of a tyrant. She’s crazy about power, she’s absolutely sexually deranged. [Laughs.] Really, she’s quite nuts. And I think it was a good portrait of some kind of tyrant like that.
Shot on the campus of Mount Carmel High School in South Central Los Angeles, a defunct school that had closed a few years earlier, Arkush made the most of the location, including spray-painting the hallways, something they didn’t necessary have permission to do.
As Arkush told L.A. Mag in 2020, “We [were] on a commando, kamikaze mission to make this movie. By that point in the movie, we are just out to kill.” And as far as the big explosion goes, “We may have lost a couple of windows, I don’t remember now, but I think that was…Yeah, we probably did,” he admitted. “We got in so much trouble. The neighborhood was furious and the police were furious because we had broken the permit.”
Hey, that’s rock ‘n’ roll!