Q&A: Rock 'N' Roll High School Director Allan Arkush Looks Back (Plus Exclusive Photos)
Joey Ramone would have been 60 years old on May 19. This week, in celebration of the birthday of the Queens-born gone-too-soon punk legend, Sound of the City will run a series of features on his life and his legacy.
Bruce Frankel/courtesy Allan Arkush
Allan Arkush has executive produced a bunch of TV shows--Crossing Jordan, Heroes, Hellcats. He made the Temptations miniseries that VH1 shows every other day. He's directed episodes of Melrose Place, Dawson's Creek, Ally McBeal, and Moonlighting. But when he shakes this mortal coil, expect the title of a $300,000 B-flick he barely spent four weeks on in 1978 to headline his obit.
Rock 'N' Roll High School, staring the Ramones, is one of the five greatest American films of all time. Well, five best movie musicals? At the very least, the scene of the band rolling down the high school halls and blaring "Do Ya Wanna Dance" with the teen archetypes (cheerleaders, jocks, geeks, etc.) following, clapping and dancing while brewing up the eventual explosion of the school, could be the most transcendent two minutes of any rock movie. Arkush, who was 30 at the time, was behind the camera. At the time, he worked in the Roger Corman camp, and Rock'n'Roll High School evolved from a simple chance to add to his directing chops into a place in rock-flick history and a lifelong friendship with Joey Ramone.
Arkush--a huge music fanatic--was in the midst of transferring his old mixtapes to digital storage when we reached him by phone. "This is kind of cool because I've been reading the Village Voice since I was in high school--so like 1965, '66," he said. "I first encountered it in my world history class. We were going to do a debate for and against Vietnam, and I hadn't really thought about it much. There was an ad in The New York Times around then that was against the war, and it was signed by every singer or folk singer I respected, and it really gave me pause. So I took the 'against' side, and the source for my argument was a Village Voice article. And I killed in the debate! Though then my teacher wrote a really bad college recommendation for me."
So, how did you first hear about the Ramones?
I always followed music in the Voice too, and that's the first place I ever heard about the Ramones, because I was living in Los Angeles at the time. Some article about CBGB. I was a huge fan of music, but I wasn't personally experiencing that scene. And I remember Robert Christgau's review of the first Ramones album, and he gave it an A. So I went out and bought it.
And what did you think?
Um, I didn't get it. I played it and played it, and I didn't get it. So I had some friends over one night. I was working for Roger Corman, so he, and Joe Dante, and some friends were over. I said you guys, you gotta here this. These guys are the hottest group in New York, and every song sounds exactly the same! So I put the album on, and I played only a couple seconds of each song, and then I loved it. It made me laugh, and it all kind of came together. But it was Rocket to Russia that really got me. First time I heard that I thought, "This is a genius record, this is one of the great rock records of all time." And my opinion has not changed.
When Rock 'N' Roll High School came out, it was not treated very well by the Village Voice. We didn't get to open the movie in New York, which was really painful. It opened in Texas!
Because Corman was an independent distributor, it was truly an indie film. But indie films in those days weren't the arty ones, like now. They were the exploitation ones, for drive-ins, right? So as far as Roger was concerned, there was no point in opening it in New York City. And you opened where you had available theaters or drive-ins. Me and Seymour Stein and his Sire Records argued against that, because Sire was releasing the soundtrack album ahead of the movie, which was kind of new at the time. They were really pissed off. So it opened in April 1979, in Texas and New Mexico, and didn't get to New York until August. And Johnny Ramone was furious. I remember he said, "I think we've sold 243 albums total in New Mexico!" So by that time, the movie had died on the normal trail of drive-ins, etc. Roger wanted to cut the movie and change the name, but we convinced him to stick with it. Then it did okay in San Francisco. But it had played in Chicago in July as a midnight movie. And Ebert and Siskel gave it a great review. And that's where it took off.