My January 2009 film column for Maximum Rock N Roll. Originally appeared in issue 308.
DO YOUR PARENTS KNOW YOU'RE RAMONES?
Hurray. The holidays are here again. Looking for a way to kill some time as you while away the hours at grandma's house? I'd like to suggest my three favorite DVD commentaries. As far as I know I am the only one who actually enjoys listening to filmmakers, writers, producers and actors ramble on about making a movie while watching the film. I don't know who thought this might be a good idea, but I'd like to thank them. Well, at least when the participants are interesting.
The best audio commentary is Rock 'N' Roll High School. Why? The commentators aren't afraid to dish the dirt. Director Allan Arkush, Producer Michael Finnell and Screenwriter Richard Whitley all participate and right from the start they mention how cheap executive producer Roger Corman is. In fact, they put it into the film. The very first shot has birds saying "cheap, cheap, cheap" over the opening credits. They also point out the shadows in the first scene. One shot has short daytime shadows and the next has long sun setting ones. That was because Corman wanted the whole scene done in one day. Arkush wanted Mamie Van Doren to play Coach Steroid, but Corman wouldn't pay her $1500 salary. Yet, perhaps because of these seemingly lame costs cutting approaches the result was a great, funny movie. It is hard to imagine how Rock 'N' Roll High School would have turned out with Cheap Trick in The Ramones role. When shown the comparison costs between having Cheap Trick or The Ramones in the film, Corman easily picked the less expensive Ramones. That turned out to be the right decision.
Rock 'N' Roll High School was originally supposed to be "Girl's Gym" a script Corman had waiting to be made. Screenwriter Whitley was working on script called "Heavy Metal Kids" based on the Todd Rundgren song where the kids blow up the school. The films were sort of combined into "Disco High" because Corman wanted to cash in on the Saturday Night Fever craze. After some convincing by director Arkush that disco was not cool and rock'n'roll was the way to go the film was changed to Rock 'N' Roll High School. The search for a band to star included Todd Rundgren, Cheap Trick, Devo and even Van Halen. Fortunately, eventually the Ramones got mentioned. Rundgren later told Arkush that he should have taken the role in the film. I have a hard time even imagining him in it.
How many times have you watched Rock 'N' Roll High School? It still holds up. Writer Whitley says he put all his high school fantasies into the film. The one thing everyone including Corman agreed on was that the school had to blow up at the end. I was always disappointed with the film Heathers that they didnŐt blow up the school. (We can argue about that later.) Face it, for pretty much everybody high school sucked. While I never got to blow up my own high school, living vicariously through a film or two is still satisfying.
There is so much to learn about the making of Rock 'N' Roll High School from the DVD commentary. Most Ramones' fans already know that Dee Dee was a notoriously bad actor. His one speaking line was cut from five words down to two and after more than thirty takes he still barely got it. Yet, there is a lot more to tell. For instance when Joey looked through Arkush's personal record collection he "couldn't believe anyone who liked the Ramones could also like the Grateful Dead". Rob Bottin who plays the giant mouse also played the drummer of the Cantina band in the original Star Wars. Roger Corman thought there was "too much Ramones" in the movie and wanted the middle of each song cut out. How would that have worked? There is way more to Rock 'N' Roll High School's background than you probably need to know, but you'll definitely enjoy the stories.
Number two on my list is Repo Man. That is mainly because it blew my mind to learn that Jimmy Buffet makes a cameo in the film. After many years of seeing the film many times, I never knew that. I don't recall ever seeing his name in the credits, but even if I did I am sure I wouldn't have thought that it was that Jimmy Buffet. Why would I?
Repo Man's commentary includes Director Alex Cox, Executive Producer Michael Nesmith (of the Monkees), Casting Director Victoria Thomas and actors Zander Schloss (Kevin), Sy Richardson (Lite) and Del Zamora (Lagarto Rodriguez). There is a lot of shit talk about Emilio Estevez being a diva and being afraid of the punks. But there is also talk about Fox Harris's who played J. Frank Parnell inability to drive a car. In most of the car driving scenes it is Cox driving the car. The one scene in which Harris does drive the car he crashes into a gas pump. After the first few days of shooting the Chevy Malibu went missing. After scrambling to find another the original turns up in the Valley. Luckily there was an extra car because actor Harris smashed one up crashing into the gas pump.
Cox wrote Repo Man after his first script was considered too expensive to film. He based the idea on his own experience as a Repo man. He considered three possible endings for the film. He seems to have chosen the best one. I couldn't imagine Otto taking off to South American to fight in a revolution. While Cox is excellent at giving background and pointing out all the film homage shots, it is left to the actors to give away all the behind the scenes secrets. Zander Schloss who played nerdy Kevin also mentions that while filming he tried to befriend the Circle Jerks who didn't want anything to do with him. Then years later he joined the band.
Finally, spend some time with 24 Hour Party People. There are two different commentaries, but I choose Tony Wilson's. It is interesting to hear what someone thinks of viewing his film alter ego. Wilson is quick to point out all the inaccurate scenes in the film. No one pogoed at the Sex Pistols' first Manchester show. He never tried to get Paul Morley to write Ian Curtis's biography while at his funeral. Wilson will also add random personal stuff such as although the Stranglers did appear on So It Goes, he hated having them on the show since he thought they were old guys who just jumped on the punk bandwagon. Fortunately, Wilson doesn't hold anything back and that's what really makes a DVD commentary.
One more film that might ease you through the holidays is Starstruck an Australian film from 1982. There is no audio commentary, but the film's existence is a new discovery for me. Jackie is a singer whose cousin Angus writes new wave songs for her to sing and plans her rise to stardom. Both are fairly naive when it comes to the entertainment industry. Jackie is willing to sleep her way to the top until she discovers that the man who can make her a star is gay. The two live with their grandmother and Jackie's mother above the pub that they run. There are a bunch of interesting characters that frequent the pub. When they might lose the bar, a grandiose plot is devised to help Jackie win a singing contest and save the bar.
Starstruck provides a fun take on a fairly generic plot. The music and choreographed dance sequences are very catchy as well as very '80s in style and look. They have to be seen to be believed. If that wasn't enough there is also an all-male synchronized swimming number. It goes great with eggnog.
I am always looking for films to review. If you made one, send a copy to Carolyn Keddy, PO Box 460402, San Francisco, CA 94146-0402. If your film is playing in the San Francisco Bay Area, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will go see it.