Allan Arkush, film and television director, and producer….has been actively rocking the films out since 1970. When in 1979 he directed his dream movie, Rock’n’Roll High School. Along with a host of others such as Ally McBeal, Fame and Heroes, and with an Emmy award for directing The Temptations. Allan Arkush has had the esteemed pleasure to work with such illuminates as Frank Sinatra & Joey Ramone. It was an early morning when Allan and I had a wonderful conversation discussing everything from his his record collection, the elements that shaped his vision for Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, to DDT getting a hold on Allan Arkush. It was an honor indeed to interview such an exciting person. Take it Allan “1-2-3-4!”
The records you collected that paved the way to Rock ‘n’ Roll High School
The first kinds of songs that appealed to me was in Disney movies and television shows. I liked all the songs in Pinocchio and Snow White. When I was about 6 or 7 years old there was a show on tv every Sunday night called Walt Disney Presents. They had Davy Crockett King of the Wild Frontier, it was an adventure show that hit boys in the sweet spot. There were 3 versions of the same song at the same time that made the top 20. Of course I had to have it but i didn’t have a record player, so my parent’s bought me a toy record player. I had one record I played all the time, imagine the intensity! In self defense my parents bought me a second record. Then they bought me a self help record called The Noisy Eater by Jerry Lewis and that was supposed to teach you table manners. So by now I’m listening to the same records all day long. They took the radio from the kitchen and put it in my room and I started hearing all these songs and immediately gravitated to Murray K who was on every night. On Saturdays he played primarily doo-wop music, and rock ‘n’ roll. That’s where I heard Motown for the first time. Eventually he played the first surf record. I listed to Murray for years and the first 45 i bought was Please Mr. Postman by The Marvellettes and I bought Meet The Beatles.
I had seen The Stones on The Dean Martin program where Dean said how ugly the Stones were and that he didn’t want to touch them. The first stones album I loved was Decembers Children, then I bought Out of Our Heads with ‘Satisfaction’ on it. I started buying folk records as well as rock n roll. There was an amusement park in the town of Fort Lee, New Jersey, it was right outside the city and very easy access to NYC. You take a bus one mile and then you take the subway. There was an amusement park there called Palisades, people would come that had hit records and lip sync to the record in front of a crowd on a Saturday. Every Tuesday night there was a folk show that broadcast live from Palisades. It cost a quarter to get in the park and they had people like Dave Van Rock, Jesse Colin Young, Carly Simon, Richie Haven’s. Freddie Cannon wrote a song that is covered by the Ramones called ‘Palisades Park’.
That’s a great song, on Brain Drain.
In the summer of 1965 Bob Dylan announced in the New York Times they were doing a concert at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium. We get to the show and he’s introduced by Jerry White who had the folk show. Dylan sings all these folk songs but he’s veering towards ‘Desolation Row’ so there’s some scattered dissension among the audience cause its all college kids and very doctrinaire, this is ancient rock ‘n’ roll history where these things actually mattered. This was important. Is Dylan now changing? He’s singing about justice now and the first half ends with him singing ‘Desolation Row’ which is an 11 minute song and the second half Jerry White doesn’t come out, Murray the K comes out in a bright red suit talking about how Dylan is going to be rockin! Out comes Dylan with a band that you would give half a million dollars to see today. They played electric, and the audience booed, and that show left a tremendous impression on me.
I became a DJ in college and on my college station. I would buy records and discovered the billboard charts. There was no rock journalism. There was no way to get information about rock music except by listening to the radio, and radio was everything. Do you remember the role that the radio played in connecting everyone with the film American Graffiti? If you take a look at that movie it’s very important for understanding how music and radio affected the baby boom generation. I left that college and moved to New York. I got really good marks but I wanted to go to NYU Film School so I transferred. All my old friends from high school and everyone who had been scattered at different colleges meet at my house, we unpack my record player and put on this brand new record by The Beatles Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. For the rest of that afternoon we sit there in the technicolor world of that album. We played it all afternoon but we had to stop at about 6 cause we were going into NYC to the Cafe Au Go Go where we saw a lot of bands, it only held 200 seats but we had tickets to the first first tour of a San Francisco band that had a big reputation, the Grateful Dead, so that was the beginning of the 60’s. I used to go to concerts, especially when I lived in the East Village I saw the Doors, Country Joe & The Fish, The Jefferson Airplane, and The Fug’s. If you’re the kind of woman who finds the disruptive parts of the Ramones amusing, you would have definitely been a Fug’s fan.
Any other Rock bands you like?
There are bands that are not around anymore like The Blues Project. I liked Moby Grape, The Rascals. It’s hard to be obscure when there’s no way to find out about this stuff. There was this magazine called Crawdaddy which was the first place that a highly inquisitive person like myself who likes to read and analyze saw a newspaper about rock ‘n’ roll music that was analytical. No one had ever sat down and written an essay about Jimi Hendrix’s first record, or an essay about any of this stuff with an intelligence, it was never reviewed or treated in a way except a social phenomenon.
I got a DJ job on the college radio station, I was supposed to play the top ten top 40, and I did that for a week, then I started throwing in other records. They didn’t care they let me do what I wanted. Once every 3 weeks this box of records would arrive, sent from some distributor to college radio station, so that concept was just starting. I’m looking through this stuff and I find this album. I recognize a name on the record, and I heard he had been in another band. before there was the Ramones in the 60’s all of the British bands post Beatles there was a movement to go back to Blues, there was this guy named John Mayall. Eric Clapton quits The Yardbirds and joins a band, John Mayall who was a Blues purist puts out this record. This is essentially the birth of the rock’n’ roll guitar hero gun slinger macho thing, it all comes from this record. Once they heard Clapton on this that was the way, and from this he went and did Creem. You want a little bit of really interesting rock history that is so fuckin obscure?
Okay, so Clapton’s gonna play on this record, and he wants to get a great guitar to play the Blues, so he calls up Keith Richards and borrows Keith Richards’ Les Paul Gibson. America now knows about the Les Paul Gibson cause Keith played it on ‘Satisfaction’ on the Ed Sullivan show, so Eric plays it on this and that’s the sound now of the Blues. He gives it back to Keith who uses it on a bunch of great Stones records and on the album Sticky Fingers. So all those great guitar solos are played on that guitar and it goes to France where they make Exile On Main Street, a double record set played under the influence of heroin by the Rolling Stones at their early peak. It’s as funky and dirty and great a Blues Rock record that could possibly exist and in the course of doing that someone steals that Les Paul. Fifteen years later it’s in a White Snake video on MTV and everyone goes ‘that’s Keiths guitar!’ Anyway, completely unnecessary knowledge.
So I take this record, I take it back to my room and I’m looking thru the records in the box and there on the bottom is a record thats got no information on it. By that I mean that all records at that point in history have blurbs about what the bands favorite food is and cutesy pictures and all that stuff and this record did not. It was staring up at me from the bottom of the cardboard box and didn’t look like any other record in there. I take it back to my room to study and I put on the first side but the studying stops with ‘Light My Fire’, right away it grabbed me with ‘Break on Thru’. The 2nd side starts with The Doors doing a Howling Wolf song called ‘Backdoor Man’ about anal sex. What Jim Morrison does is grunt and shout, you get the picture. The last song on the album is 11:30 long, it’s called ‘The End’. It’s a reclaim of Oedipus, a son falling in love with his mother and killing his father and having sex with his mother as done by The Doors.
When did you start collecting records?
64 or 65. There’s about 2500 vinyl, 5,000 cd’s, about 400 mix tapes, about 1,500 movies quite a few are concert films. I never bought commercial cassettes cause they sounded so shitty and they would break. I made thousands of mixed tapes because when I was doing the radio station I learned it is essentially a live mix tape, and I would give them names. On my birthday I would make a tape of what I listened to over the year. Theres’ all kinds, some with just guitar music, I have a whole selection of women singers and musicians throughout the world. They’re all digital files now cause I didn’t want to lose them.
How do we get to Rock ‘n’ Roll High School?
From April of 68- June of 71 I’m working at the Fillmore East as an usher, then as a stage crew member and then at the psychedelic light show. I saw The Who at the same time that Joey saw The Who, we saw the same shows we figured out years later. I gave him a bootleg for his birthday of a Who show that we both loved. I saw Led Zepplin and the Dead. When I moved to Los Angeles I was reading the Village Voice and the New York Times and the New Yorker started having rock critics, people reviewed rock records and wrote about rock concerts and that was a big thing for me. One of them was a guy by the name of Robert Christgau’ of Consumer Guide. He had a list once a month of all the new records, a short piece about it and he gave it a grade. If you understood his taste it was a great way to find a lot out about records. He didn’t give out a lot of A’s, mostly B’s and C’s and a lot of musicians resented that. In 1975 or 76 the village voice really started writing a lot about CBGB’s. I was a huge rock fan listening to Jackson Brown, The Eagles, Linda Rondstadt, the Kinks and the British records, and Bruce Springstein, whose manager had been a writer in Crawdaddy magazine. He wrote a review of the Talking Heads and I bought the record and it was good. He wrote about The Ramones andIi bought the first Ramones record and I did not like it. I thought it all sounded the same. I had some friends over one night who asked me what I was listening to and I said ‘Oh you gotta hear this band outta New York, it’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard and the critics all love it.’ I put the record on and I’m skipping thru from song to song to show how insane it was and I was like holy shit, and I got it. That’s how I heard of The Ramones, and I bought the next record (Leave Home) which also got an A, which I liked, but the 3rd record I thought was genius. Rocket to Russia literally jumped off the record player, it was phenomenal and had all all the things that were thematic to the Ramones ,not just in terms of content but in terms of sound.
FILMING THE RAMONES
I wanted to have a rehearsal with them to see how they sounded reading the script. I went to the Tropicana, which is where they were staying, the infamous Tropicana. The Ramones started reading and we never got through the whole script, it was too difficult. I invited them over my house to watch Hard Days Night so we could talk about rock’n’roll movies, lip synching and acting as rock groups. They had never realized The Beatles were all lip synching in Hard Days Night, they thought The Beatles actually sang. When they got to my house naturally they started looking through my records and John (Ramone) became incensed when he saw my Grateful Dead records. He said ‘You like these guys or what?’ How the fuck can you like these hippies and us, and now we’re letting you make a movie with us, and you like these guys?!’ it was a very tense moment.
THE AUTEUR THEORY
In all film criticisms starting in the 50’s and in the history of film was the thought where there was one person and they had a vision for a movie in a way that you could articulate until the mid 50’s. A bunch of French and American film scholars and historians started writing that maybe it was the director who was the author of the piece because certain directors seemed to have the same themes over and over again in the same way they handled scenes, and that the ones that stayed purist to that like Alfred Hitchcock made great movies. So I said to The Ramones that I believe in the Auteur Theory and you guys and the Grateful Dead are auteurs. So if you decided to play a Grateful Dead song it would not sound like anything close to the Grateful Dead, it would sound like a Ramones song no matter what song you attempt, and if the Grateful Dead decided to do ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ it would sound like the Grateful Dead. There was a pause and they bought it, and so I still believe in the Auteur Theory to this day. The scene where they show up at the school Dee Dee quite accurately said “Holy shit we look like were’ from another fucking planet!” and that was the effect I was going for.
It took 20 days to direct this film. On the last day we had 2nd-unit which is other units shooting certain scenes. The scene where the airplane is flying through the school was directed by the guys who went on to make the movie Airplane. Joe Dante came in one night and did the stuff with the ladies tied up in the cafeteria. The next day I had a case of rapid heartbeat and couldn’t stand up so I went to the hospital. Joe came in he directed all the stuff in the gym and all the dance numbers, the stuff on the ropes, and around the phone booth. That’s how it ended. There were 20 days, and they were very long days. The day that we did The Ramones at the Roxy the concert we had that divided over two days. One day was the backstage stuff, with The Ramones in their dressing room and them running around backstage in the hallways and all that, and the the other day was the music. The backstage day was probably sixteen hours. The concert day was like 20 hours, that was brutal.
The only way that we could afford to do the crowd scene in the concert was to act like it was a concert and charge people to come see it. Normally you pay extras to be in the film, with Rock’n’Roll High School the extras paid us, but after 6 hours they were so pissed off at having the same thing happen over and over again. So we changed the crowd out every three hours.
What a great idea!
I know, I forgot completely about it until we did the commentary and when Mike Farrell reminded me I couldn’t stop laughing. Such an insane idea.
BLOWING UP ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL
There’s 2 schools. There’s Van Nuy’s where we did the gym, walking through the gym, the opening outside around the picnic tables, and the mouse blowing up. We did a bunch of different stuff there but we never told them anything about blowing up the school because they were a regular LA County school, so the script they got was a watered down version called Disco High and it didn’t have any of that in it. We found the Catholic school and that’s where everything else took place. Since it was already empty we could get away with it and had a meeting with father Bob. I think we were disingenuous in describing the explosion of the school to father Bob. The explosion was far bigger than it should have been. We almost lost our permit and we certainly lost all the kids, they were not coming back, so we had to get new kids and they don’t match but nobody knows.
‘Do You Wanna Dance?’
That was done at the Catholic school. I wanted to do like an MGM musical song with the Ramones like an old style musical. That’s one of the things that was going on throughout the making of the film. The original writer saw it more as a realistic drama about angsty teens, and I always saw it as a musical comedy. He gave it the structure, it was his idea to blow up the school which at first i disagreed with because I thought it would make them too unlikable. Then it sat in my head and I agreed with them. One of the things that has made the movie beloved and its longevity is PJ Soles’ performance as Riff Randall the character. The whole idea of aspiration and standing up for yourself, if you think the rules are wrong then do what you think is right. All of that seems to come out, and I have had so many women like yourself come up to me and tell me about how important this movie is to them because of Riff Randall, I mean, everyone likes The Ramones. But it is a much larger movie and people return to it over and over again because of Riff Randall and her story.
Rock’n’Roll High School has always been my #1 favorite, truly a magical film.
I see you have devoted a lot of your time to this movie! Rock’n’Roll High School was on VHS for a really long time. All the VHS copies were being stolen from the rental places. Then there was the laser disc which was very successful, then it went to dvd. There’s a Disney version which sucked. Then Shout Factory did it and Shout Factory was the best. There’s a new one coming out in November, a new blue ray for the 40th anniversary.
How did you find PJ Soles and Dey Young?
PJ came in and read for us and had a certain energy that reminded me of Gail who was one of the women Rock ‘n’ Roll High School was based on. When I worked at the Fillmore East as an usher that meant I worked right next to the lobby and tickets were $2.50, $3.50 and $4.50. That was insanely cheap, and you’d see three bands. You could see in one night the opening act being Miles Davis, the 2nd act being The Steve Miller Band, and the headliner being Neil Young and Crazy Horse, or Led Zeppelin and Woody Herman or The Who and Chuck Berry. There was a certain group of kids (Gail, Janice and Diane) from Long Island who came to every show every weekend. They were always dressed up, always very nice and were true rock believers. It was all about the music. They weren’t groupies there was no vibe of that at all. That’s who Riff Randall is based on, in my mind, and a writer by the name of Lisa Robinson who became a rock critic and a writer of Rock ‘n ‘Roll. Gail and I went and saw the Stones together at Madison Square Garden. They waited in line and Gail got her picture in the paper, so that’s where that comes from.
Riff Randall in my mind was like a cheerleader the year before who now became obsessed with punk and Joey Ramone, and that her friend who is straighter is obsessed with the football star. That’s just the way kids are. They evolve so quickly. That’s why high school is so intense, you’re going thru so much stuff and it seems like a long time but it’s only 4 years. Those polarities are what I was interested in working with.
“I Want You Around”
That was the 2nd day of filming for us, but the 1st day for The Ramones. It took John quite a bit to smile, that little smile. He didn’t want to do that. He didn’t want The Ramones to smile in any pictures. We got that song done and it went really well. It’s a small room so technically that makes it harder.
Talking Joey into be more aggressive so to speak in the scene took some work, but that all went smoothly. He was very amenable. Joey was in a very quiet withdrawn period in his life then and rarely spoke. He was always late for everything, and this stuff is chronicled much better in Monte Melnick’s book or I Slept with Joey Ramone, written by Joey’s brother Mickey Leigh. Joey and I stayed friends for the rest of our lives and we got along great.
Is the scene at the end where The Ramones meet with Miss Togar at the school improvised when she says “Do your parents know that you’re Ramones?”
I don’t remember. Everyone has a different memory. It is the funniest line in the movie. I know that John thought of the ‘Kick Me’ sign that went on her back. All the stuff with the freshman being locked up and put in the cabinet, the hall monitors, all that was improvised.
Did the hall monitor really eat the goldfish?
Well he put it in his mouth. It’s not a fake goldfish, we didn’t have that kind of money.
Rock ‘N’ Roll High School goes on tour
When you know a movie is coming out now it comes out all across the country on the same day, or it comes across in art house theaters in a few cities and spreads from there. You make like 2,000 prints of it for the theaters. Roger Corman didn’t release movies that way. He only had a certain budget. Roger would make 100 prints and distribute it to areas of the country where certain theaters would be willing to play his product, with a separate budget for each area. It was a very bad idea to open in Texas and New Mexico, it was really stupid, and the only reason they did that was the guy who was in charge of distributing it didn’t like the movie, didn’t like me and we didn’t see eye to eye. We previewed the movie for a sneak preview on Hollywood Boulevard at The World. Back in 1979 there were theaters all down the Boulevard, one on every block or every other block. On one end you’ve got Mann’s Chinese, that was the big one. As you moved down the block there was The Vogue, The Holly, the Hollywood, The Pan Pacific, the Pantages, and then all the way down at the dark end of the street was The World. It ran 3 movies for $1.50. There were no lights around it and the people who went there had no money. 4 or 5 blocks from The World was a place called Disgraceland.
The punk scene in LA was centered around a hotel apartment building everyone called Disgraceland, it was a spot on Hollywood blvd where the Go-Go’s lived and where all the bands from the late 70’s and early 80’s lived and would rehearse in the basement. Then they would go to The Masque which was three blocks over, that’s where the shows were that they played and that’s where the whole punk scene was. On this particular Tuesday The World was playing Saturday Night Fever, Thank God It’s Friday, Nashville Girl and a sneak preview that happened to be Rock’n’Roll High School. We would see how the movie played cause some people had severe doubts about it because it was so different and I wasn’t allowed to invite anyone.
While I was standing outside a bunch of the people from Disgraceland saw me and walked up to me and nodded, people I knew from concerts, many of them had been extras in the movie and they had no idea the movie was playing there. They walked in and now the movie goes on and they realize it’s The Ramones movie and they go nuts. They love all of it and the movie went pretty well. Afterwards the distributor guy said this was all bullshit, that nobody could like the movie that much. He said it was like a commercial for The Ramones and he wanted me to cut out the middle of every Ramones song and the reference to the Ramones, and cut out the scene with the girls talking, he said it went on too long. In your life there are certain times you gotta to dig in, and this was it. I had a 5 year relationship with Corman working there, he knew my taste, he knew my devotion and he knew i wasn’t going to do anything stupid, so I told him he was missing the point. When you go to a movie and there’s a band in it, if you don’t treat the band with respect and you cut up all their songs then you just killed one initial part of this audience. It is an insult that you would spend your money if your favorite band would be mistreated like this and you’d tell everyone who likes that band not to go to this and not to see it cause they mistreat The Ramones.
The audience cheered when Riff Randall dumped the punch on Miss Togar, you have to be on her side to get that otherwise she is just a brat, those women have to be allowed to say who they are, you can’t cut it up! So Roger left it at that. It was supposed to open in New York in July or August with the soundtrack album. Since the distributor wanted to sabotage it and open it in Texas and New Mexico it opened without the soundtrack, and John (Ramone) was really pissed. They had no fans in New Mexico, they sold only 130 albums in New Mexico. Then it opened in Chicago and did really well cause that distributor put it on double bills. One half of the theaters played it with Grease and the other half played with Dawn of the Dead. Siskel and Ebert wrote a great review about it and they said it should be played at on TV at midnight and the rest is history.
Anything else you would like to share?
Rock ‘n’Roll High School is coming out in November on Blue Ray from Shout Factory with an all new documentary and everything taken from the initial negative. Do you get Netflix? Go to Netflix and find the show the series of unfortunate events. Season 2. It’s an episode called Hostile Hospital. There’s two episodes that make one story. I directed that and I think you’ll get a kick out of it.
You also directed The Temptations which you won an Emmy for. That is such an amazing film.
Yes, Temptations is great! Do you get Amazon? There’s a movie of mine that is very hard to see called Elvis Meets Nixon. The version that I did is 1997, just in case you want to expand beyond the one movie.
Thank you so much for your time Allan. Gabba Gabba Hey!