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School of Rock (2003) Print E-mail
Friday, 03 October 2003
Richard Linklater seems on the verge of a career like that of Steven Soderbergh: you don't know what door he's coming through next. He established a reputation primarily with "Slackers" and "Dazed and Confused," then dazed and confused critics with the later releases "Tape" and, especially, "Waking Life," an animated feature about personal philosophies.

Now he turns up with a movie much more conventional than anything he's made before. The story is a variation on the "great teacher" theme, combined with "loser wises up" elements. But it's a hell of a lot of fun, largely thanks to Jack Black and a schoolroom full of phenomenally talented ten-year-olds. It's not enough that every kid gives a good performance, most of them are also impressively skilled musicians, for therein lies the story.

Jack Black is hard to cast; he's been in movies longer than you might think -- he was in "Bob Roberts" and "Waterworld," among others -- and he was terrific as John Cusack's employee in "High Fidelity" a few years ago, but since then has stumbled through a series of who-wants-to-see-THAT comedies. He's energetic with great comic timing -- offscreen, he's part of the comic rock act Tenacious D. -- and a blunt personality that can turn people off as easily as it attracts others. "School of Rock," written by Mike White, deftly plays into Black's strengths AND his weaknesses, turning them into virtues. He's onscreen almost the entire movie, and while you will find his character, Dewey Finn, a bit hard to handle, he's also funny and never wears out his welcome. Part of the idea, of course, is exactly that he is just too much -- he learns how to channel his driving energy.

As the movie opens, he's a ferocious member of a struggling, loud-but-not-good rock band; he's given to long, bellowing solos and leaps into the audience. So the band fires him even before they can try out for the local Battle of the Bands.

He also doesn't ever have much money; he rooms with former bandmate Ned Schneebly (screenwriter White) and Ned's contemptuous girlfriend Patty (Sarah Silverman). Dewey's way, way behind in his share of the rent, having coasted on Ned's easygoing nature for all too long. Both Patty and Ned work, of course -- Ned's a substitute teacher, though Dewey keeps calling him a "temp" -- and demand the money. Or else. It doesn't help matters when Dewey claims to be a responsible citizen: "I serve society by rocking!" he exclaims.

While the other two are gone, Dewey intercepts a call for Ned; when he realizes this is a job offer, substitute teaching at an exclusive prep school, which will pay actual money, Dewey claims to be Ned, and lands the job. He's completely uninterested in the bright ten-year-olds in his class; they come from moneyed parents and dress in tidy, conservative school uniforms. Dewey's biggest concession to appropriate dress is a bow tie.
He plans to just drift along, sending the kids out on extended recesses, while simply waiting for the paychecks to start coming in. But he's bored, and eavesdrops on the kids from his class at their band practice. Band...! Still stinging over being fired from the band he started himself, Dewey conceives the screwy notion that maybe he can assemble a rock band out of his class, and get them into the Battle of the Bands.

The kids, however, know damned little about rock, although we gradually understand that most of them kind of like it. So Dewey begins teaching them in the only way he can: first he covers a blackboard with the history of rock, then begins finding out what strengths the kids in his class might have. A drummer here, a keyboardist there, maybe a bass player, even a guitarist. He's very supportive; he tells them individually that every kid is doing great, although he often adds that perhaps they should do THIS rather than THAT.

He manages to keep this secret from the school principal, Rosalie Mullins (Joan Cusack), and even from Ned and Patty for a while, though the arrival of a check for Ned from the school does cause consternation. And then there's the looming spectre of Parents' Night....

There have been a lot of movies about a grumpy loner, rejected by society and rejecting it as well, who's reformed by his (or her) encounters with kids. (Cary Grant, for example, went through this in "Father Goose.") And there have been a lot of movies about unconventional teachers who manage to get the very best out of their often surprised students. "School of Rock" cleverly fuses this with a guy so soaked in rock, so dedicated to the idea of "giving it to the man," that he can't see past the tip of his nose. Not until he's given a reason to, and thereby reforms himself and helps those kids. And maybe he helps Rosalie, too -- after all, she's a secret Stevie Nicks fan.

Although at 109 minutes, the movie is a little long, it's very well, and traditionally, structured; each kid has a moment to shine, and the complications arrive on cue, just before the audition for the Battle of the Bands.

This is a wonderful marriage of actor and role; so perfect is Jack Black for this showy role that it's damned hard to imagine the movie with anyone else as Dewey. He's loud, boisterous, annoying, charming, intense and relaxed, often all at the same time. We easily understand why these kids find him both alarming and fascinating, and since each kid who talks is given a very clear, specific personality, it's also easy to understand why Dewey is, despite himself, drawn to them.

The kids are very well cast. It couldn't have been easy finding children of this age who can both act and play (or sing) music, but there's a roomful of them here. Among the standouts are Joey Gaydos as Zack, the lead guitarist, Kevin Clark as Kevin, the dazzling drummer (who really gets into the whole rock scene), and Miranda Cosgrove, as the angelic but tough little girl who's made manager of the band. But really all the kids are good, and White has come up with good lines for them. Assigned the task at coming up with a band name, some girls offer first "The Mumblebees," which Dewey manages to reject without actually shuddering, then "Pig Rectum," which surprises him, but still isn't any good. They settle for, surprise, "School of Rock."

There's no depth here, no new ground is broken -- it's not that kind of movie. It's a comedy about rock and about kids, it's a spoof of stuffy schools and over-privileged parents, and it's very shrewd at blending them all. "School of Rock" is loud -- the sound is excellent, and the music often good -- but it's not a form of assault, either. It's a genial, funny and positive movie, great fun for adults, kids and adults who have no kids but remember when they were kids themselves.

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