There's a sense of fun to Rock 'N' Roll High School that is a hallmark of the best teen movies, showing the exuberance of adolescence, when everything seems so meaningful and important, and every experience is new and exciting, even though it's been experienced millions of times by millions of other people. Not that this movie has anything serious on its mind, but its relentless goofiness does capture something real about being a teenager and being in high school, and it's remarkably respectful of teen lives and teen interests, without a hint of the condescension that so often shows up in movies about "youth culture" made by clueless adult filmmakers. Director and co-writer Allan Arkush really just thought the Ramones were awesome, and decided it would be awesome if he treated them like teen idols. That enthusiasm comes through in every moment of the film.
It helps that Arkush has a fabulous cast to support his kooky vision as well, including the wonderful P.J. Soles as rock rebel Riff Randell, who idolizes the Ramones and is absurdly in love with Joey Ramone. Her acts of rebellion are pretty tame (well, until the movie's climax), but she's so passionate about asserting her own identity that every song she blasts on the school P.A. seems like an anthem for a revolution. As great as Soles was, I was even more taken with Dey Young as Riff's nerdy best friend Karen Rambeau, with her oversized glasses and penchant for science experiments (maybe it's just that I have more of a thing for the nerd girls). I love that Arkush doesn't make a big deal over the fact that the punk rocker and the science nerd are best friends, or that the nerd has a huge crush on the star football player, or that the football player in turn is crushing on the punk rocker. His version of high school is all about the kids versus the adults, not the kids versus each other, and while cliques of course do exist, I think there's a lot more fluidity than most teen movies acknowledge, and this movie navigates that effortlessly.
And on the adult side, the movie has Mary Woronov, wonderfully devilish as the evil school principal. Her vast experience in campy horror movies makes her the perfect candidate to play this sadistic taskmaster, and she's every bit as entertaining as the teenagers are. Arkush also makes room for a teacher who isn't an insufferable hardass, and Paul Bartel has loads of fun as the stuffy music teacher who opens up to the joys of the Ramones.
As for the Ramones: They are amusingly awkward in how terrible they are as actors and even as pantomimes (half the time the lip-syncing and instrument-playing barely matches up with the music). But they are also perfect objects of fascination in this sort of alternate universe, and the songs in the movie are just as fun and exciting to listen to now as they were in 1979. It's great that the movie didn't latch onto some awful bubblegum fad act that would end up seeming dated; the integrity of the band reinforces the integrity of the characters. Also, the perpetuation of the illusion that the Ramones could read music thoroughly amused me. This movie may have seemed like just another Roger Corman assembly-line product in 1979, but it's stood the test of time as one of the best teen comedies ever made.