From the beginning, rock music was pitched toward the young. The generational schisms opened early and often, with teenagers eager to assert cultural power like never before. Rock may have been a galvanizing blend of older music styles, but it was always looking ahead, not back. “Roll over, Beethoven” was one credo. Alarmists in the old guard only added fuel to the fire when they warned of the music’s danger. As another chorus put it, it was “here to stay,” though over the next fifty years it would morph into a bewildering variety of subgenres. At the core of the most popular forms of rock in all that time was their capacity to drive one’s parents and teachers crazy, or at least drown them out. Two movies have captured that feeling in a particularly playful manner. In each of them, young people use rock music to rebel against their authoritarian schools. But the mood is exuberant, rather than angry. With the war already won, youth culture was free to dance on Beethoven’s grave.
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School was a cheaply made independent film, produced by Roger Corman, that captured the Ramones at the height of their powers. The story, by Joe Dante and director Allan Arkush, centers on the peppy punk-rock-loving students of Vince Lombardi High School. A new principal (played by Mary Woronov) promises to impose strict discipline, cracking down on outdoor dance parties and such. Ramones superfan Riff Randell (P.J. Soles) runs afoul of the administration when she skips school three days in a row, camped out at the front of the line for concert tickets. School of Rock arrived two-and-a-half decades later as an altogether more polished work, produced by Scott Rudin, written by Mike White, and directed by Richard Linklater. A layabout musician named Dewey Finn (Jack Black), recently kicked out of his band, poses as a substitute teacher at the elitist Horace Green Prep School. In lieu of any teaching skills, he eventually decides to draft his musically talented pre-teen students into a rock band as a “class project,” all the while trying to convince the neurotic principal (Joan Cusack) that everything is proceeding normally.
School of Rock takes the idea of rock as youthful expression and exaggerates it comedically. The kids in the film have their own frustrations for the music to address, but their assumption of the style can only be seen as playacting, and the movie derives a lot of humor from their awkwardness. Still, there’s plenty of thematic overlap between the two films, with students living the dream of abandoning their boring studies and, at the climax, the school campus itself. A concern that the younger kids don’t have yet is, of course, sex, so the music can’t be dangerous for them in that way, either. In Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Riff Randell’s nerdy friend Kate Rambeau (Dey Young) tries to win the affection of dopey quarterback Tom Roberts (Vince Van Patten). She seeks help from the school’s suave fixer Eaglebauer, played by (who else?) Clint Howard. Later, Riff will express some of her own hormonal longing in a musical daydream. Part of the difference here is simply a matter of accessibility. The millennial kids are literally too young to remember the Ramones or Led Zeppelin. Their attraction to the music is more conceptual. But the results are pretty similar. The music makes them all want to get up and do something different with their lives.
The main distinction in tone between these two films is exemplified in each film’s secret weapon: the performance by the woman playing the school principal. Woronov portrays Principal Togar as an over-the-top fascist killjoy, gleefully clamping down on the students’ fun. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is thoroughly tongue-in-cheek, riffing on every stale high school movie cliche with deadpan absurdity. (A freshman gets shoved into a locker, and then a trophy case, and then a filing cabinet.) Cusack plays Principal Mullins entirely differently — as, in fact, a victim of the school’s stringent standards, constantly trying to project the correct levels of strength and poise. As a fan of Stevie Nicks, she has a ready-made point of connection with Dewey. School of Rock is a light spoof on inspirational dramas about teachers, and its central insight is that the teacher-student relationship is never one-sided. Dewey actually does succeed as a teacher at the most basic level: the students who need more freedom, he encourages to loosen up; the students who need more discipline, he restrains. But the movie never strays too far from the fact that Dewey is partially motivated by petty revenge and selfish amusement. The kids, slowly but surely, knock some sense into him on that score.
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School resolves into anarchy, as the stakes of the story only continue to rise. It’s still all in good fun, even when the school explodes. School of Rock, however, is unarguably mellower, which is not at all surprising for a Linklater film. At the big concert, when the concerned parents arrive, instead of storming the barricades (or trying to explain exactly what their concerns are), they agree that buying tickets is the simplest way to get in. The earlier film includes one authority figure (the music teacher, played by Paul Bartel) who succumbs to the allure of rock music, but in School of Rock, the scales fall from everyone’s eyes at the end. Linklater’s film is a pointed attack on a more realistic kind of authoritarian, the wealthy snob who overreacts to even the slightest hint of divergence. Still, it’s all in good fun, even when a busload of kids goes missing. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, however, unarguably gives its young protagonists more agency and self-sufficiency. They know what they want, and they know why. The prep school kids have merely taken the first step on that journey. They know how to be loud. And maybe it all is nothing more than noise for its own sake, with scarcely a thought in its head. These kids don’t care about your three R’s, man. All they need is two.