School of Rock

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 10/03/03 15:24:49

"Great Jack Black. Dumb Richard Linklater."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

There are two schools of thought in comedic filmmaking. One is crediting the writer and the director for a witty script or well-timed plotting. Sometimes a star like a Jim Carrey or a Robin Williams is such a force of nature though that a director almost becomes meaningless; like a propmaster assigned to just move things along to the next moment of inspired lunacy. Renowned indie filmmaker (not by me) Richard Linklater would normally be the last person to tackle such a dumb, studio-sponsored project. Throw in a screenplay by Mike White (Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl) and the ingredients start to look pretty interesting. By the time its all over, if you’ve gone along for the ride, all you’ll likely to remember is that this is a Jack Black movie and how expendable White and Linklater could have been.

Cross Black’s Barry from High Fidelity with his persona from the self-proclaimed “greatest band in the world”, Tenacious D, and you get Dewey Finn. Thrown out of his rock band and getting pressure from his roommate Ned (Mike White), care of his nagging girlfriend (Sarah Silverman) to pay the rent, what’s a struggling rocker to do but…gulp…get a job. When an elite prep school calls looking for Ned, a substitute teacher, Dewey takes the call and also Ned’s name to secure the gig. In his broke world, even a teacher’s salary is a vast improvement.

Dewey doesn’t have much intention on doing anything but invoking the ancient childhood art of clockwatching, but when he hears some of those kids carrying a tune in music class, that $20,000 Battle of the Bands looks quite promising. Basics be damned, thinks Dewey, and soon he’s got the class filled with instruments and concentrates on molding the kids into the band of his dreams. After all, he “serves society by rocking”, so you might as well teach what you know.

This is as old school a plot as you can get with recent examples like the Sister Act films and even Paramount’s recent The Fighting Temptations (which is part of a staggering streak of repetition that also includes Marci X.) There’s something fundamentally dumb about the storyline and even quite disturbing if you’re not aboard. Here’s an irresponsible loser who admits to having a hangover to a group of 10-year olds before blowing off their education completely to meet his own selfish needs. So how could the film work at all? Attribute it to something Alfred Hitchcock once said that no matter how evil a character may be perceived, if he’s good at his job the audience will be with him.

I could never be a music critic. Other than general facts about music and artists, I know nothing about why songs work and why some are praised and others thrashed. When Dewey introduces the kids to his own version of compositions, a kind of transcendence takes place. One-by-one he chooses his bandmates and tests them out. We know he may not give two guitar picks about these kids at this point, but he cares about the music. Despite laughing at his ridiculous antics early on, its here where we begin to appreciate that Dewey isn’t both a loser AND a horrible musician. We all wish we could love our jobs the way Dewey does. Not since Marty McFly have we seen someone so in love with being a rocker.

It may not be the education we want for our kids, but they ARE learning and having fun while doing it. Working together to form a single unit is a lesson that is usually subsided in both movies and real life as self-reliance and individual goals outrank taking one for the team. (Dewey rips up a chart using stars and black dots for rewards and demerits.) Those who aren’t in the band run security and the class brain becomes band manager (when rejecting the labeling of “groupie” after looking it up on the internet.)

Teaching them deception and rebellion are cringe-inducing thoughts especially when puberty naturally serves that function later on. I cringed a lot during The School of Rock and I suspect I won’t be the only one. Why is it necessary to saddle one child with the youngest implied homosexual role ever committed to film? Unauthorized field trips, which can easily be construed as kidnapping, to criminal(?) impersonation (the cops show up at one point and seem to magically disappear) can’t sit well with the parents shelling out thirty grand a year for their privileged children to learn the three R’s in a G-rated environment. Can you imagine walking into your kid’s classroom and seeing “Buzzcocks” written on the blackboard?

All this doesn’t even account for the film’s basic fundamental flaw that hovers over our minds and could have been changed to eliminate the cringe-inducing complications. Not wondering what kind of Battle of the Bands takes place on a weekday afternoon, but simply why not make the roommate a music teacher? He was once a Goth rocker alongside Dewey who has since been immasculated. Then the impersonation, while still wrong, at least makes sense. He can teach the kids rock ‘n’ roll instead of classical and the rebelliousness factor and concerned parents can stay intact. It’s still dumb, but it’s not creepy.

A number of audience members won’t be able to divide the two and even more will just forget about it entirely and revel in the performance of Jack Black and the catchy tunes he’s creating with the kids. If music is cathartic in any way, it’s proven by the rehearsals and eventual final performance of The School of Rock. One of my favorite moments in Tom HanksThat Thing You Do was the Wonders’ first live rendition of the title track where they slowly discovered the right rhythm on the spot until it became the hit that everyone would love. This film stretches that to feature length as every student finds their voice, a song is written and then, by the end, we’re wondering where we can buy the record. It’s great watching these kids play.

Black, on the other hand, can’t play this role forever and if his Shallow Hal performance was any tell, he’s got a range beyond the chubby, boisterous goofball. But it’s just what The School of Rock needs. When we’re afraid of the sap train at the next stop as he bonds with the kids and understands their problems, Black comes through with a ridiculous energy that makes us forget about all the inconsistencies and irresponsibilities of the script. It’s quite a multi-task on Black’s part since other than the children, no one in the film is given anything suited for their own comic talents. Joan Cusack (despite one funny late scene with a hopelessly dumb rocker) has to play prissy as the upstanding school principal who has also forgotten her wild days. We keep waiting for her to explode, but it never happens. Fellow comedienne Sarah Silverman is also reduced to playing another in a long line of bitchy shrews for her. Persona be damned, Silverman is funnier than most filmmakers seem to understand.

And a filmmaker Richard Linklater would be considered; not some studio hack assigned to shell out a quick product. Clearly attracted to the music aspect of the story, there’s something ironic about the screenplay’s references to “the man”. Since independent filmmaking can be akin to the revolution against the studio system (and Linklater has long been one of the champions of film geeks everywhere; again, not by me) what’s Linklater saying by taking on such a generic concoction that has the chance to become his biggest hit to date? (An $11 million opening weekend would take care of that.) Mike White, who also penned Paramount’s rather formulaic Orange County, has a script that misses so many opportunities to connect the already plotted-out dots about music and the emphasis on fun & fame over the importance of teachers , that it’s amazing how much I actually liked the film. It’s very funny, never OD’s in saccharine sweetness and does actually manage to rock at times. Then again, I’m not a music critic.

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