There is a single brief shot in Allan Arkush’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979) which qualifies it as one of the greatest rock movies ever made. A happy accident, as it turns out. The camera was running at the wrong speed. The crew had been filming a day-long performance by The Ramones for the film’s centerpiece concert scene. What had, at first, been a raucous concert for an elated gathering of extras gradually turned sour as the band replayed the same songs, over and over, as Arkush worked to get every necessary shot for the extended sequence before the extras fled; and those extras came very close to mutiny as the hours passed in the hot and cramped Roxy Theatre in West Hollywood. Arkush claims the filming stretched to 22 hours “at roughly 130 decibels.” You can have too much of a good thing, it seems. At one point an undercranked camera captured leads P.J. Soles and Dey Young in the crowd. Soles, playing Ramones super-fan Riff Randell, clutches in a fist the lyrics to a song she hopes to deliver to the band after the show, and jumps frantically in place. Nerdy Dey Young, as Kate Rambeau, in a thin white top and wearing a yellow cape with black polka-dots, shyly acknowledges Soles, tries to listen attentively to the band’s music, nods her head, almost falls over as her friend slams into her, and gradually gives herself over to having fun – all of this presented, accidentally, at a hyperspeed usually associated with Keystone Cops chases. And you watch it with recognition: Oh yeah; this is what going to a concert is like. Concert movies don’t usually get across this feeling – of being an ecstatic teenager in the crowd, giving yourself over, having the time of your life with your best friend.
The marathon performance is captured as a long medley in the film (and on the LP soundtrack), interrupted for only brief bits of unimportant plot business, though even those are funny and rather energetically staged. The Ramones begin with the signature “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Kate Rambeau looks spaced-out and confused, Riff Randell in heaven. In the crowd we see their high school teacher Mr. McGree (Paul Bartel, director of Death Race 2000), who inexplicably accepted Randell’s invite to the show, instantly become a rock ‘n’ roll convert as he dances manically with a giant mutated rat.* Just your typical eclectic Ramones crowd.
As the band launches into “Teenage Lobotomy,” the words LOBOTOMY flash on the screen, becoming larger and larger, until the screen cannot encompass them; then the lyrics are subtitled like a bouncing-ball sing-along. Arkush uses the faster tempo to match the speeded-up footage of his young actresses. It may have been madness to keep the extras prisoner for this long, long shoot – most directors would quickly gather the crowd footage they need, and pick up the rest of the shots after the throng disperses – but the advantage to Arkush’s decision is that there is no invisible line between the Ramones and their audience. Joey Ramone plunges constantly toward the mob, pointing at them, beckoning them with his oversized hands; the camera swings back and forth, films from behind them and from every conceivable angle. It’s convincing because it’s all live and improvised; but the technique also gives the whole long scene a sweaty, tactile, and unpredictable energy.
The song “Pinhead” captures Joey with a fisheye lens, and honestly, dear, sweet, chinless Joey is already a somewhat Lovecraftian creature, so the fisheye – as he stares with a single bulging eye visible through tinted glasses, leering toward the camera – is pretty damn creepy. As the Ramones sing “D-U-M-B” twice, Arkush first spells the words correctly at the bottom of the screen, then incorrectly (D-M-U-B). Zippy the Pinhead walks onstage with a “Gabba-Gabba-Hey” sign. Magically, everyone in the crowd now has “Gabba-Gabba-Hey” signs. Zippy would soon become a recurring character in the Ramones’ act (just one of the many ways that the Ramones embraced the film and the fans they gained because of it).
Arkush keeps the plot moving: a girl competing for the role of #1 Ramones Fan steals Riff’s song lyrics and runs backstage; Riff and Kate enlist their friend Tom (Vincent Van Patten) – whom Kate has a crush on – to pursue the thief. In a hallway behind the stage, a roadie snorts coke off a mirror, then checks his watch, spilling the powder onto the grungy carpet. (“Oh, shit,” he says.) Bending over to snort it off the floor, he trips the thief, and Tom is able to catch her. As he returns the stolen song, he also finally realizes that he cares for Kate after all (neatly tying off that plot thread). They go back to the concert. Riff gets Joey Ramone to read her note, dedicating his next song to the gang at Vince Lombardi High. He serenades her; she gazes at him dreamily. Kate and Tom dance happily together. The world has been righted again, all thanks to the Ramones. Gabba-gabba-yay.
* A running gag in the film – look, we don’t have time for this; go watch the movie.