Squeakquels! Rock n' Roll High School Forever
Let’s face it: everybody loves sequels, and for a very good reason: they’re pretty much all great. How could they not be? They take something everybody already loves, like the premise of Weekend at Bernie’s, or Larry the Cable Guy’s voice performance as Tow-Mater in Cars, and repeats it, sometimes with a higher budget and bigger stars. That’s when the magic of Hollywood meets the magic of capitalism and a beautiful beast like Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon is born, equally committed to art and finance, to educating and uplifting and teaching us something about the human and robot condition but also to keeping our Christ-ordained economic system going strong so that we can defeat the Muslim heathens and claim the globe for Christendom!
Oh shit. I probably shouldn’t have written that. I’ve never been shy about letting politics slip into my film writing, but my CIA cover is that I’m a left-wing blowhard not a right-wing racist demagogue and well, I’m saying entirely too much and I don’t want my security clearance taken away, so let’s get back to the matter at hand: sequels and why they’re always so great.
When they make a sequel to a movie like Miss Congeniality, thousands of Muslims in New Jersey dance in the streets in celebration but, to be brutally honest, not all sequels are great, only the vast majority of them. This can be hard to believe, dear reader, so you may want to sit down and make sure your monocle is fastened on tightly, but sometimes sequels can feel arbitrary, or uninspired, or listless, or even perfunctory.
That’s why I am introducing a column called Squeakquels!, about the rare sequel that isn’t an incontrovertible masterpiece. And since this is Corey Feldman month, AKA Feld-Month, AKA a terrible mistake, AKA “Is this really the best use of my time and energy?”, I figured I would finally get around to watching and writing about 1991’s Rock 'n' Roll High School Forever.
Despite my long-standing morbid fascination with the Feld-Man, and my love for Rock and Roll High School, I’d never seen Rock and Roll High School Forever. I could claim that I did not want to see a personal favorite get desecrated but you and I know that’s not true. I guess I never saw it because even a pop-culture-obsessed weirdo like myself wasn’t going to watch all the Corey Feldman movies no one sees, and no one has ever seen, unless they’re on some manner of bizarre pop culture quest like Feld-Month.
Roll 'n' Roll High School Forever is the fourth movie of Feld-Month, and the fourth comedy from the 1990s (AKA the dark times), and, by Feldman's own reckoning, his introduction to the world of direct-to-video, a world he would subsequently never leave. By this point Stockholm Syndrome has set in to the point where I was relieved to the point of being obscenely grateful that while Rock 'n' Roll High School Forever is predictably terrible, it’s terrible in a refreshingly, unexpectedly good-natured way. On a more inexplicable note, I spent most of Rock 'n' Roll High School Forever staring in awe and envy at Feldman’s thick, luscious mane of hair.
Feldman has been slathering on the pancake mime make-up and promenading publicly as Goth Michael Jackson for so long that it can he easy to remember that at one point he was an extraordinarily handsome young man with a lot of charisma.
There’s an innocence to Rock and Roll High School Forever lacking from his grubbier, more sordid later fare. The appeal of Busted, National Lampoon’s Last Resort and Dream A little Dream 2 is naked breasts, followed distantly by the fading appeal of the classic comedy team of Haim & Feldman, AKA Feldman & Haim. But the appeal of Rock 'n' Roll High School Forever is not only Corey Feldman, but the music and dancing of Corey Feldman specifically.
Nobody wants to see that, as I will learn on Sunday when I go pay money to see Corey Feldman sing and dance live here in Atlanta as the climax of Corey Feldman month. Yet Rock 'n' Roll High School Forever, in an adorable fit of optimism, somehow imagined that Feldman would be appealing enough as both a rocker and an actor that he could fill the roles of Joey Ramone and P.J Soles simultaneously as the movie’s primary rocker and its scruffy, irreverent protagonist.
Feldman stars as Jesse Davis, a young whippersnapper who digs that crazy rock and roll music (it really, really drives him wild), playing outrageous pranks, like flushing a bunch of toilets simultaneously, and riding his skateboard through the hallways like some manner of extreme, fool-pitying, rapping surfer kung-fu hippie from Gangsta City.
The movie kicks off with Davis celebrating Rock and Roll High School Day, a makeshift holiday commemorating the anniversary of magical day in 1979 when, spurred by the rebellious, anti-authoritarian ethos and spirit of punk rock and the Ramones, a high school was righteously blown up.
Feldman's protagonist is a true believer in the liberating forces of rock and roll and the movie opens with him strutting around dancing not unlike “King of Pop” Michael Jackson (did you know that, in addition to being Jackson’s friend, Feldman was influenced by Jackson creatively as well?) while one of his compatriots in mischief rides a motorcycle. In school! When you begin a movie at a “random student riding a motorcycle through the hallways” level of craziness and pandemonium, it leaves no place but down.
Davis isn’t just a true believer in rock and roll and good-natured mischief. He’s also a rocker himself, the lead singer of a group called the Eradicators. Are the Eradicators as good as the Ramones? I’ll put it this way: the Eradicators aren’t even as good as Dee Dee King, Dee Dee Ramone’s heartbreakingly sincere rap side project, which I wrote about for one of the My World of Flops in one of the entries that probably led to its eventual death at The A.V. Club.
The Eradicators are introduced in the most punk possible fashion: performing reverent covers of golden oldies from Fat Domino and Little Richard. Because heaven knows nothing pisses off squares quite like performing competent versions of songs recorded decades before they were even born, that their parents might enjoy.
Rock 'n' Roll High School had a similarly intense connection to the music and fashion and style of the 1950s. It understood how punk Eddie Cochran and Little Richard were, and appreciated the proto-punk insouciance of Frank Tashlin's The Girl Can't Help It (and its glorious theme song) but also how punk built upon the crazy energy of early rock, rather than just cynically exploiting cheap nostalgia, Sha Na Na-style. Forever has no such nuanced understanding of rock's evolution. It just knows that the kids love the rock and the squares hate it.
The Eradicators may not be distinguished musically but from a diversity standpoint, they’re outstanding. Feldman’s lead singer is backed by a black science guy on keyboards, a female guitarist so alternative that she reads Spin in school like a total badass, an eccentric drummer who looks suspiciously like Corey Haim and an Asian guitarist an exquisitely over-written and excessively detailed Wikipedia entry on the film informs us is the “martial arts expert of the team.” That’s important. Every band needs at least one martial arts expert. Belle & Sebastian actually have three, each more lethal and badass than the last.
Forget the Ramones: The Eradicators feel like it is exclusively comprised of the third runners up for the New Monkees. The Eradicators sound may not be punk rock but their agenda most assuredly is: Jesse Davis and his gang of mischief-makers want to perform their bland, middle-of-road style of pop-rock at the Ronald Reagan High School prom.
Mary Woronov returns from the first film, although it’s ambiguous as to whether she’s playing the same character. In Rock 'n' Roll High School she played the villainous Evelyn Togar. Here she plays a similarly villainous, one-handed figure named Vice Principal Vadar. Though it is never established in dialogue that they’re the same person, it’s a very similar performance from the same actress, and it is entirely possible that between the events of Rock n’ Roll High School and Rock n’ Roll High School Forever the character married Star Wars villain Darth Vader and even though the marriage ended in divorce, they remain friends and she kept his last name. Of course, Vadar is spelt differently than Vader, which is the only possible hole in my otherwise foolproof theory.
Rock n' Roll High School Forever is largely devoted to the “outrageous” yet harmless pranks the Eradicators pull on various preps, suits, nerds and busybodies, like replacing urine with apple juice for drug tests, then pretending to sample their own urine in front of horrified authority-type figures, or pretending to be part of a cult with a religious fixation on large appliances.
Rock n' Roll High School Forever feels like it was made by people who love Rock and Roll High School but do not grasp what made it special or understand comedy or music or musicals at all. Its heart is in the right place and after trudging through the cess pools of National Lampoon’s Last Resort, Dream a Little Dream 2 and Busted, the film’s sunny innocence is a welcome surprise, if a little perplexing. How the hell are you going to make a movie about the liberating powers of rock and roll without any boobs or any doobies? Or, for that matter, any good rock and roll?
Forever features some of the most straightforward and non-terrible music of Corey Feldman’s career but the vast gulf between the music in the original High School and in its tardy, ferociously ignored sequel is the difference between, well, the comedy and acting in the original and the comedy and acting in the original.
Most days, I’d rather be watching Rock n’ Roll High School than do anything else. That was particularly true when I was watching the sequel, which feels like more like a good-natured but inept piece of fan fiction rather than a proper follow-up.
The lack of the original actors in key roles highlights the ersatz nature of this endeavor. This is, after all, a movie that got Corey Feldman at the very beginning of his steep decline yet was unable to secure the returns of high-priced talent like Paul Bartel or Clint Howard, so they instead chose to re-cast those roles with lesser actors.
This is how weirdly invested I am in Rock 'n' Roll High School. While I appreciated the way M*A*S*H star Larry Linville (who, somewhat confusingly, is actually a bigger name and star than the wonderful independent film icon he’s replacing) faithfully captured Bartel’s playful, avuncular essence taking over the role of Mr./Principal McGree, once I realized that the sequel brought back the character of sleazy, possibly all-powerful guidance counselor Eaglebauer, Clint Howard’s cinematic moment of glory, but with a different actor in the role, I was nothing short of apoplectic. Apoplectic! It’s one thing to replace the Ramones, one of the greatest rock groups of all time, with Corey Feldman and the United Colors of Benetton. It’s quite another to not honor Howard’s work making Eaglebauer one of the greatest and funniest characters in all of Roger Corman’s wild world.
Within the context of Feldman’s life and career, there’s something poignant about watching his character enjoy the fun, carefree high school experience Feldman missed because he was hanging out with people like Steven Spielberg and Michael Jackson, acting in huge, iconic movies like Gremlins, The Goonies, Stand By Me and The Lost Boys and just barely surviving an adolescence rich in psychological trauma, suicidal depression and neglect, and physical, sexual and substance abuse.
Onscreen Feldman was free. He belonged. He had friends. He had quests. He rocked. He was comfortable. He knew what he was doing. Offscreen was another matter altogether. He was imprisoned by his vices and imprisoned by the cruel bonds of family and golden-handcuffed together with Corey Haim, who shared a first name, teen idol status and a world of pain with the Feld-Man.
Feldman looks fantastic in Rock 'n’ Roll High School Forever. The movie was supposed to highlight Feldman’s gifts as a rocker as well as an actor but he’s completely upstaged by Mojo Nixon’s cameo as “The Spirit of Rock and Roll.” Nixon may have been a mild amusing novelty, but he’s Elvis times Michael Jackson compared to Feldman.
Feldman was barely out of his teens when Forever was instantly and thoroughly forgotten but by that point his career as a movie star was over. He couldn’t have known it at the time, but Rock 'n’ Roll High School Forever was one of the first of his vehicles to live ever so briefly and quickly die in the long, long shadow of Feldman’s early rise and endless fall.
Rock n’ Roll High School Forever isn’t much of a movie, but Feldman, in his radiant youth, was a real movie star, even if the movies he made were small and would only get smaller.
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