The School of Rock
2003, PG-13, 108 min. Directed by Richard Linklater. Starring Jack Black, Mike White, Sarah Silverman, Joan Cusack, Maryam Hassan, Kevin Clark, Rebecca Brown, Joey Gaydos Jr., Robert Tsai.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 3, 2003
When his roommate’s bitchy girlfriend asks rock & roll schmo Dewey Finn (Black) what he’s done for society lately, he replies, "I serve society by rocking." And as anyone who’s been following Black’s career with his faux rock band Tenacious D already knows, that’s no lie: Black can rock with the best of them. He has both the requisite chops and pipes, and with his Belushi eyebrows and Farley snits, he’s the best of the heavyweight comedians in one not-so-svelte package. Plus, as The School of Rock so admirably notes, the guy’s got heart. That Richard Linklater would choose this amiable, kid-friendly, rock & roll comedy as his next feature, following the deeply philosophical meta-movie Waking Life and the spare, powerful Tape, has got to be some sort of Guinness-worthy record ("Most Abrupt Tonal Shift in a Director’s Oeuvre?"), but let’s take a moment to decipher why it all works as brilliantly as it does. Linklater’s love of rock is no secret – witness Dazed and Confused first and foremost – but teaming Austin’s indie auteur with Black’s oversized histrionics was a stroke of genius. The School of Rock brings not only Black’s musical skills but also his acting abilities front and center; he’s no longer so much the class cutup, sniggering at the back of the classroom, as he is the garrulous professor extolling the virtues of rocking, maaan, to a handful of riff-needy students. It’s a fully developed performance by Black – his first – and although the character of Dewey Finn seems a more established take on his smartass High Fidelity record-store clerk (and it is), it’s also much, much more. Surrounded by an excellent supporting cast and working from a script by Chuck & Buck’s Mike White (who also co-stars as Dewey’s roommate Ned), this is Black at his best, and Linklater as well. White’s script holds few surprises – it is at its core The Bad News Bears with musical instruments, with Jack Black as Walter Matthau – but that doesn’t dilute or render the film’s wonderful momentum one iota. Dewey Finn, wannabe rock star, finds himself kicked out of the heavy metal band he helped found on the same day his roommate (and ex-band buddy) Ned is pressured into demanding all of Dewey’s back rent by his girlfriend Patty (Silverman). That same day Dewey answers the phone and, pretending to be Ned, accepts a position as a substitute teacher at a moneyed private grade school for gifted and talented kids. Soon enough, he’s dodging the school’s suspicious principal (Cusack) and abandoning any curriculum other than that of rock & roll, hoping to create a real live band out of a group of fifth-graders, the better for him to win the local Battle of the Bands. All of this, of course, is merely an excuse to let Black’s manic persona out of the bag and all over the audience. And in the hands of almost anyone else, it might not have worked. But Linklater, White, and especially Black understand that in the end the only prerequisite for being a good teacher is being passionate about your subject, and both Black and Dewey have passion to burn. The young actors who play Dewey’s ersatz bandmates, too, are uniformly excellent, both in their musical competence (Linklater apparently searched far and wide to cast the best and the brightest) and in their ability to convey distinct personalities – and this in a film loaded with outsized characters. As far from Slacker as you could possibly get and still be using a motion-picture camera, The School of Rock is nonetheless pure Linklater, pure rock & roll, and pure fun. Gabba, gabba, hey!