The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents June 2010 Return to Table of Contents
Robin Hood
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Bigger Than Life
The Natural
Corman Duo
ASC Close-Up
Rock n Roll High School and Suburbia (1979 and 1983)
Rock ’n’ Roll High School (1979)
Blu-ray Edition
1.85:1 (High Definition 1080p)
Dolby True HD
Shout Factory, $26.97

Suburbia (1983)
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 2.0
Shout Factory, $19.93



As a director, Roger Corman had some of his earliest successes with teen rock ’n’ roll flicks like Carnival Rock and Rock All Night (both 1957). When he shifted gears in the 1970s to produce films and mentor young directors, he continued to appeal to the youth market with horror movies, action films and sex comedies. In fact, two of Corman’s crowning achievements as producer and executive are throwbacks to his own 1950s celebrations of rebellious teen spirit: Allan Arkush’s raucous musical Rock ’n’ Roll High School and Penelope Spheeris’ searing, punk-rock time capsule Suburbia. Though hugely different in tone and style, both movies perfectly capture their periods and the ways young people find definition through music that gives them a language to express what they cannot yet convey in words. Both films also represent early work by directors of photography who would go on to create hundreds of hours of indelible images in a variety of genres.

Rock ’n’ Roll High School tells the story of Riff Randell (P.J. Soles), a high-school student who is obsessed with the punk-rock group The Ramones. Randell spends most of the movie locked in battle with her principal, Miss Togar (Mary Woronov), who tries in vain to keep Randell and her friends from attending a Ramones concert and destroying the school. Screenwriters Arkush, Joe Dante, Joseph McBride, Richard Whitley and Russ Dvonich use this storyline as connective tissue for a deliriously entertaining collection of musical numbers, sight gags and verbal puns — it is like Preston Sturges and Frank Tashlin by way of Mad Magazine and National Lampoon.

The Tashlin influence is most evident in a sweetly funny set piece lifted straight from The Girl Can’t Help It, but, in fact, Tashlin’s colorful style is echoed throughout the piece in the vivid cinematography of Dean Cundey, ASC. Arkush was an enormous fan of Cundey’s work on John Carpenter’s Halloween and called upon him to create a pop-art palette with bright colors and camera movement perfectly choreographed to a hard-rock beat. Cundey’s images constantly enhance both the comic and musical aspects of the film, as in several hilariously noir-ish sequences set in Togar’s office. In spite of Cundey’s low budget and rushed production schedule, his sense of composition is superb, and the marriage of music, camera movement and blocking in a climactic performance of “Do You Wanna Dance” is as invigorating as the best of Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen. It is no surprise Cundey would graduate from the “Corman school” to photograph hits like Back to the Future and Jurassic Park, among many others.

Suburbia plays the harsh doppelganger of Rock ’n’ Roll High School. Whereas the kids in Arkush’s film find liberation and joy through music, the homeless teens of Suburbia find only a temporary outlet for their bottomless supply of angst and aggression. Spheeris had previously documented the Los Angeles punk scene in her documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, but Suburbia was her first foray into fiction filmmaking. The term “fiction” barely seems to apply here, however; for even though the story is scripted, Spheeris and director of photography Tim Suhrstedt, ASC, create an uncanny sense that life is unfolding before the audience’s eyes. The movie follows a group of kids who label themselves “T.R.” (The Rejected) after leaving their homes to escape various forms of abuse and neglect; they share a filthy, abandoned house, and their days and nights are spent aimlessly committing petty crimes and pranks. The closest they come to joyful experiences are the punk-rock concerts they attend, but even those are marked by bursts of violence and tragedy.

Spheeris imbues the project with reality by casting mostly non-actors and using real punk bands of the time; the film’s documentation of concerts by TSOL, The Vandals and D.I. makes it a valuable companion piece to Decline, and the naturalistic performances make the characters’ desolate circumstances all the more heartbreaking. Suhrstedt knows what he has in the behavior and trash-strewn environment and does not force his effects; his camera often observes the action passively, as though the film is an anthropological documentary rather than a narrative feature. In the most harrowing moments, Suhrstedt utilizes harsh lighting contrasts that give the characters no room for escape. Yet for all its bleakness, Suburbia does convey a certain degree of warmth toward its lost souls.         

In the past, both of these features have suffered from spotty transfers that failed to properly exhibit Cundey’s and Suhrstedt’s triumphs over their low-budget limitations. Thankfully, Shout Factory has released Rock ’n’ Roll High School and Suburbia as the inaugural films in its “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” series and given them the treatment they deserve. The Blu-ray of Rock ’n’ Roll High School is particularly strong, with a faithful reproduction of Cundey’s vibrant color scheme and improved clarity in the many interior concert scenes. Suburbia’s transfer is also a vast improvement over previous home-video releases, though its source material is not in quite the same shape; there are occasional scratches and other flaws on the print, but they are not overly distracting. Both Rock ’N’ Roll High School and Suburbia were mixed and released in monaural sound, and the remastered soundtracks on these DVDs reflect those low-budget origins. This is as good as these films have ever sounded, but the original mono mixes have simply been spread across the surround channels.
 
The real benefit of these releases is the staggering bounty of supplemental features. Rock ’n’ Roll High School includes all of the special features included on Buena Vista’s DVD release, as well as hours of new commentaries and documentaries, and they are all fantastic. The high point is a new commentary track by screenwriters Whitley and Dvonich that gives a detailed production chronology of the film as well as an entertaining account of Corman’s New World Pictures in the 1970s. Arkush, Soles, and actor Clint Howard provide another fascinating new commentary track, and there are two additional audio narrations from the Buena Vista release. Amazingly, there is a lot of fresh information on each track, as there are in the excellent 23-minute documentary “Back to School: A Retrospective” and the 15-minute discussion between Soles and costars Vincent Van Patten and Dey Young. Also included are a new interview with Arkush, audio outtakes, script pages from deleted scenes, press materials and an interview with Corman conducted by Leonard Maltin.

The Suburbia disc is less exhaustive but essential for film and music historians, with two commentary tracks: one by Spheeris and borrowed from a previous DVD release, and a new one by Spheeris, producer Bert Dragin and actress Jennifer Clay.

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