Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979): American Indie #14

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A human sized female mouse is flabbergasted about recent events at Vince Lombardi High and she’s squeaking angrily to the Principal. On her cutesy dress is embroidered ‘I Hate Mousework’.

On first seeing Rock’n’Roll High School in 1979 (it was shot the year before although it’s set in the very near future of 1980), I wasn’t entirely convinced by it. I’d wanted something that resembled producer Roger Corman’s biker flicks from the 1960s but with punk rockers. Or maybe a social realist film shot in the streets surrounding CBGB, featuring a bunch of desperado Ramones fans behaving badly.

This is a very different beast. A teensploitation flick that focuses on comedy as much as it does on music, some of it gloriously silly.

Then there was the fact that the schoolkids were all so old. As filming took place I was still at secondary school myself. On screen, The Ramones’ biggest fan and leading Vince Lombardi rebel Riff Randell is played by P.J. Soles, who was over a decade older than me, albeit she was a very young looking 28.

The movie kicks off on the day when Riff’s soon to be nemesis, Miss Evelyn Togar takes over as Principal. Her main aim is to improve discipline. She’s a prim and proper authoritarian and vehemently opposed to modern music. And this uptight woman is played wonderfully by Mary Woronov, former dancer with The Velvet Underground!

The problem between the pair is later summed up by Togar as: ‘I am a reasonable, well educated, mature, adult member of society and you are a spoiled, heathen punk.’ Randell, though, isn’t dressed in black with spiky hair and there’s not a safety pin in sight. Instead, she wears bright colours. When we first see her, she’s wearing a red satin jacket patterned with musical notes. If the movie had been named Disco High, she would have fitted in just as well.

Okay, a little background and something of a spoiler. Roger Corman was initially keen on the movie being called Disco High to cash in on the success of Saturday Night Fever. Director Allan Arkush, though, had other ideas. A man who’d worked for years at the Fillmore East, where he’d seen the likes of The Who, Doors and Led Zeppelin, Arkush wanted a rock band to feature, a wise decision, as by this point disco was absolutely mainstream, with clubs like Studio 54 employing an elitist door policy. The climax of the script was to be the pupils blowing up their school and a disco inferno just wouldn’t work. Loud and fast guitars were required and who better to provide that than The Ramones?

Allan Arkush hadn’t appreciated the band on first hearing them but had eventually got them after repeated listens to their debut album. By the time the film was in development, Rocket To Russia was one of his ten favourite albums.

As he cast the film, P.J. Soles wasn’t even aware of the CBGB favourites and her initial reaction on hearing them was: ‘Is this music?’

Co-star Dey Young, who plays Kate, Riff’s geeky best pal, hadn’t heard of them either and when she first met them, she ‘thought they were the oddest creatures I had ever seen.’ You might think she was exaggerating but according to their tour manager Monte A Melnick’s book On The Road With The Ramones, back then in the warm Californian sun, they had problems even entering Disneyland: ‘Because we looked so weird,’ while another time: ‘Joey and Dee Dee decided they wanted to walk around Hollywood, so I went with them. The police stopped us within minutes.’ Most of the world took a while to catch up with the NYC band.

Ironically, the only cast members who already knew and admired them were Paul Bartel, who plays Mister McGree and none other than Miss Togar herself, Mary Woronov. Mary has also admitted to being high on the set! And she wasn’t the only one.

There’s even some mild drugtaking in one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, when Riff smokes a joint (in reality a herbal ciggy) and fantasises about The Ramones playing in her bedroom, Joey serenading her with I Want You Around as he gangles around her.

Being one of Roger’s Corman New World productions, the budget was tight but even so Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Marky were often bored hanging around while waiting for the cameras to roll. Luxuries were scarce on the set, and they weren’t keen on the early starts required by film crews. The school’s empty classrooms functioned as dressing rooms. Sometimes they would head over to the school fence, where local punk fans congregated. Some threw over drugs, which Dee Dee was all too happy to pick up, pocket and then try out. He was out his face for the entire shoot. Although an expert in lines of drugs, his three lines of dialogue in the screenplay had to be pruned to one. And even that required take after take after take.

Joey wasn’t much better. He kept forgetting Mister McGree’s name and repeatedly called him Mister McGloop. Due to the tightness of the schedule that day, Allan Arkush was forced to keep Joey’s mistake in – which I reckon only adds to the fun.

The two giant mice we see had as much chance of carving out careers as actors in Hollywood as any of the band.

In her gym class, Riff performs a new song she’s written with the intention of delivering in person to Joey and persuading The Ramones to play it: Rock’n’Roll High School. This is great, even though you might accuse the verses of Riff’s song of resembling Sheena Is A Punk Rocker too closely, but forget that, how can she get the song into the hands of her heroes?

Luckily they announce a tour with a date at the Roxy in LA – sorry, the ‘Rockatorium’ in LA.

Of course, just about everybody in school wants to see the show but only Riff is prepared to skip school for three days to land herself a spot at the front of the queue. On the third day, they pull up to the venue in the Ramonesmobile, a pink Cadillac convertible with Gabba Gabba Hey license plates, and proceed to enter the building, playing I Just Wanna Have Something to Do as they do so. It’s crazy. It’s great. In reality, it was 7 in the morning and they were all as hungover as hell.

Riff snaps up one hundred tickets, which have been requested by her classmates, but unfortunately for Riff and Kate, Miss Togar confiscates their tickets when she discovers the reason for Riff’s recent absence from school.

Will our heroine and her pal somehow get to the concert? You bet. But when Miss Togar discovers Riff and Kate defied her, she launches her ‘first major step in putting the school back on the right track,’ the next morning with a mass burning of rock albums including those by The Ramones.

This means war.

P.J. Soles is the bubbliest Ramones fan ever but eventually her infectiousness won me over and the fact that she wants to be a songwriter rather than just find the boyfriend of her dreams (she only has eyes for Joey) makes a nice change for a teen movie, although there is also a more traditional subplot where Kate desperately wants to go out with Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten), the captain of the football team, and the kind of All American boy that Riff has zero interest in. Of course, Tom only sees Kate’s big owlish glasses and swotty persona – although those science skills of hers are gonna come in handy later in the film. He becomes desperate to date Riff. Problems. Problems.

Seymour Stein and Jonathan Brett coordinated the soundtrack and, considering the movie’s cost (around $200,000), they worked marvels. It not only includes The Ramones but acts such as The MC5, Velvet Underground, Alice Cooper, Eddie and the Hot Rods and even Fleetwood Mac and Wings.

You won’t be surprised that the best thing about the film is getting to see The Ramones at the top of their form perform Blitzkrieg Bop, Teenage Lobotomy, California Sun, Pinhead, and She’s the One live. Superb stuff. It took me back to my own schooldays, seeing them play a pulverising set at the Glasgow Apollo in 1977. Still one of the very best concerts I’ve ever attended.

Finally, a little trivia. James Cameron of Titanic and Avatar fame, worked uncredited as an production assistant. And if you ask me this is much more enjoyable than anything else he went on to direct. As I watched last night, I even smiled widely at the mum mouse’s ‘I Hate Mousework’ dress.

Indeed, so much did I enjoy the movie this time around, that I made the frankly stupid decision to seek out 1991’s unofficial sequel of sorts Rock ‘n’ Roll High School Forever. Hey, we all make bad decisions in life and hopefully we learn from them.

Even Mary Woronov can’t save things as quasi-fascist Vice Principal Vadar, a more extreme version of Miss Togar. Ruth, Kate and Tom are long gone, replaced by a bunch of charmless pranksters who play in a band called The Eradicators. How bad are they? They even manage to drain every bit of life out of a song like Tutti Frutti. I’m still attempting to eradicate their music from my memory.

Derek’s Jarman’s Jubilee

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Jubilee Quad Poster

Jubilee is no dreary slice of social realism, although the backdrop of the raw sprawl of dockland London, full of bombsites and crumbling buildings, would have been perfect for that. There’s no ‘straight’ political message either, Jarman even dedicated his script at one point to ‘all those who secretly work against the tyranny of marxists Fascists trade unionists maoists capitalists socialists etc’.

Instead, this is a tale of time travel with Queen Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre), resident court astrologer John Dee (Richard O’Brien) and Lady in Waiting (Helen Wellington-Lloyd) being transported to a 1970s London by Ariel. The same Ariel who served Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

None are impressed by what they witness. This is a truly broken down Britain, where cops beat up or kill young people for fun and where homicidal girl gangs maraud around the streets. Jubilee comes across at times like a Kenneth Anger movie with a screenplay by Valerie Solanis. With a little John Waters style sick humour thrown in for good/bad measure.

The cast is of the ensemble variety. Five youngish women share a commune style warehouse squat. Bod – presumably short for Boadicea – is the unofficial leader and is played by Jenny Runacre. Amyl Nitrate (Jordan) is obsessed by history and likes to recreate Mondrian canvases with make-up on her face. Mad (Toyah Willcox) is a loudmouthed pyromaniac with bright orange hair; Crabs (Little Nell Campbell) a promiscuous and easily impressed actress; and finally there’s Chaos (Hermine Demoriane), a tightrope walker who looks good and says nothing.

They sometimes hang around with two bisexual and possibly incestuous brothers, Angel (Ian Charleson) and Sphinx (Karl Johnson), and an artist Viv (Linda Spurrier),the nearest thing to a sympathetic character that Jarman gives us.

The casting is odd. Jenny Runacre (who plays Queen Elizabeth I in addition to Bod) was already an experienced actor and had already worked with Tony Richardson, Pasolini and Antonioni; Richard O’Brien and Little Nell had recently been involved in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, while Toyah had just graduated from drama school.

Toyah Jubilee 1978

Many who took part, though, were picked on the whim of Jarman. Adam Ant (The Kid) was selected on the basis of the director spotting him walking through Chelsea with the word Fuck carved on his back by a razor blade. By a complete coincidence, Jordan, who’d performed the carving duties, had just been cast in a leading role. In fact, the first scene that Jarman chose to shoot for Jubilee involved Mad carving the word LOVE on Bod’s back, before sprinkling salt on to the wound.

The performances range from the professional to verging on the kind of thing you might see in a one-star student production at the Edinburgh Festival. If Tommy Wisseau has ever seen this, he might even find Orlando’s turn as Borgia Ginz, a megalomaniac impresario who inevitably breaks into cackling laughter after he has spoken, annoyingly hammy.

Jubilee is usually claimed to be a punk film but the former public schoolboy director Derek Jarman was no punk. In August 1976 he laid out his thoughts on the ‘King’s Road fashion anarchists’, deriding its instigators as ‘the same old petit bourgeois art students, who a few months ago were David Bowie and Bryan Ferry look-alikes – who’ve read a little art history and adopted some Dadaist typography and bad manners, and who are now in the business of reproducing a fake street credibility.’ Ouch.

Despite this opinion, he did include a number of punkish tracks in Jubilee, with Jordan – then the manager of Adam and The Ants – advising him on which music to use.

Only three days after recording their debut single Plastic Surgery, The Ants filmed the track for Jubilee in the Drury Lane Theatre. Wayne/Jayne County supplied a track Paranoia Paradise, that was supposedly number one in Moscow, having sold 30 million copies in three days, while Siouxsie and The Banshees are briefly seen performing Love In A Void.

Gene October & Little Nell in Jubilee

There’s also a blast of Chelsea’s Right to Work, a song that verges on a dirge and which I’ve never been able to figure out – is it a protest against rising unemployment of the era or is the right to work for employees who believe that they should be able to put in a shift even when the trade unions insist otherwise? The band’s singer Gene October also plays Happy Days, who meets a grisly end, being asphyxiated in a red plastic sheet and then dumped into the mud of the Thames at low tide. A far from happy day.

Additionally, The Slits, like the younger sisters of Alex and his droog pals in A Clockwork Orange, destroy a car with great relish. The band quickly decided that they didn’t want to be portrayed as violent and become associated with mindless destruction. They pulled out of any further involvement with the project and asked Jarman to bin the footage already shot. But, of course, he didn’t. ‘Can’t blame him really,’ Viv Albertine noted in her autobiography Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.

Interestingly, the first music we hear in Jubilee is the other-worldly ambiance of Slow Water. Initially released in 1976 on a limited edition of Music for Films, which was sent out to directors in the hope that they might include some of it in their films, Jarman was the first to take him up on the opportunity.

Jordan with trident

The song with the most impact, though, has to be Jordan (miming to Suzi Pinn’s vocals) performing a discofied version of Rule Britannia while wearing suspenders and carrying a trident. This apparently being England’s entry for that year’s Eurovision Song Contest.

On its release, Jubilee polarised opinions. Punks might have enjoyed the nihilism but tended to resent the message that punk acts could be co-opted so easily by the capitalist world. The Banshees condemned it while Vivienne Westwood despised it to the extent that she designed an Open T-Shirt to Derek Jarman, denouncing it. Jenny Runacre got her hands on one and wore it with pride, while Jarman was shown photographed wearing one in one of the Criterion re-release extras, A Time Less Golden (2003). When Westwood accepted an OBE in 1992, he called her as a ‘dipsy bitch’.

Derek Jarman in Vivienne Westwood T-shirt

Conservatives meanwhile were likely even more pissed off with the nudity, castration, asphyxiation, murder, blasphemy and sex – especially the orgy sequence supposedly being carried out in the bowels of Westminster Cathedral.

Despite the controversy generated, Jubilee was never a big cinema attraction and by the time it made its debut on British television in 1986, punk was dead and tracks like Sleezy D’s I’ve Lost Control would soon signal a new musical revolution in acid house.

A true provocateur, Derek Jarman was uncompromising here and remained so throughout his career. He was referred to as the ‘English Andy Warhol’ by several critics and Bowie described him as a ‘black magician.’

Don’t expect a traditional narrative here. It’s very episodic, and Jarman made much of it up as he went along (and it tells). It can often be frustrating but equally, it is extraordinary in many ways and not one single scene is bland.

The artist/director/stage designer/writer/gardener believed Jubilee proved prescient. In Dancing Ledge, he wrote: ‘Dr Dee’s vision came true – the streets burned in Brixton and Toxteth, Adam was on Top of the Pops and signed up with Margaret Thatcher to sing at the Falklands Ball. They all sign up in one way or another.’

Ginz’s observation that ‘this is the generation who grew up and forgot to lead their lives’ and how ‘the media became their only reality’, struck me as far more prescient, albeit concerning many of today’s millennials, more interested in recording their lives on phones and social media rather than just leading their lives.