There’s an important lesson to be learned at The School of Rock: Too much marketing can be a bad thing.
Right off the bat, I want to make clear that what I’m grading with three stars is the experience I had watching the new Richard Linklater comedy starring Jack Black. In a media vacuum it might have scored higher. However, movies today are not experienced in a vacuum but rather as the culminating stage in a highly orchestrated series of media events. These are intended to spread word about a new film, of course, and to build viewer anticipation. Theatrical trailers, television ads, magazine show features, talk show interviews-they’re the free supermarket samples of the movie business and, in putting so much product in the hands of the consumer prior to the point of purchase, studios run the same risk as do food producers who give away free helpings. If the shopper’s already stuffed, he’s less likely to find the product novel and satisfying once he gets it home.
For weeks now the producers of The School of Rock have stoked viewer interest and, prior to seeing the film, I would have guessed that they had done just about everything right. Black’s been all over the dial and buzz for the picture has increased exponentially. From the first time I saw the trailer, I told myself this was going to be one of the funniest times I’d have at the movies this year. And don’t get me wrong; I had a perfectly pleasant time. The problem is I had heard about and read about and seen so much of what is funny in the film that, when I finally watched it, all of those parts had lost most of their impact and most of the rest of the movie isn’t up to their standard.
With the millions it spends on audience research and focus groups, Hollywood has finally figured out how to make a really good movie, make you want to see it and then make you feel like you’ve been let down somehow once you do.
Black is all Belushi-style energy and facial contortion as an aging music fan who refuses to let go of his rock & roll dreams. Kicked out of his band, he takes a job as a substitute at a prep school to raise money for his rent. At first, he doesn’t teach his class much of anything other than what it feels like to have a hangover. Then he catches a glimpse of his kids playing in orchestra class and has a brainstorm: Why not shape the class into a kickass rock group and take a run at the $20,000 prize being offered by an upcoming Battle of the Bands?
Based on a script by Mike White, who has a small part in the picture, the film benefits from a premise that’s as inspired as it is preposterous. And from a ferociously antic performance by its star. It’s undoubtedly the actor’s finest to date. As you watch him buddy up to the youngins, doubletalk his way through lunch hour at the teachers’ table and shmooze with the school’s tightly wound principal (Joan Cusack), it becomes clear that Black is the heir apparent not only to Belushi but to Bill Murray as well. There’s a hefty helping of Meatballs in The School of Rock.
Anyone who loves rock music will appreciate the script’s insights into the form and its history. Memorable moments include Black instructing his preteen lead guitarist in the art of the power stance, dividing the class into bandmembers, roadies, technical crew and groupies (“They’re really just cheerleaders.”) and performing in an XXL version of Angus Young’s trademark schoolboy uniform. The thing is, as I watched, I couldn’t help wishing I didn’t remember them so well from all the film’s prerelease publicity.
So, are you going to enjoy yourself? Sure. Linklater’s latest is smart, funny and unapologetically upbeat. Will you have as much fun as you would have had if they hadn’t gotten you into the cineplex by showing you the movie’s best stuff over and over in advance? I don’t see how. And I don’t see how that’s fair either to the audience or to the makers of the film.
If you’ve just stepped off a ship from a distant planet or snapped out of a coma, I envy you. You’ll see this movie the way it was meant to be seen. I bet you’ll laugh your head off. It will amuse the rest of us too. It just won’t rock our world.