Look out for some minor spoilers ahead!
The spirited magic of rock ‘n roll illuminates Richard Linklater’s “School of Rock”, turning a formula story into something original, heartfelt, and resonant. The film’s premise – a failed slacker musician’s attempt to teach grade school, using only rock music trivia to tutor his tykes – sounds as lame and bland as Barry Manilow. Thus, those expecting “Spinal Tap Tots”, or a headache inducing, Marshall-powered variation on Daddy Day Care can be forgiven.
However, we are talking Linklater here, a director whose work finds emotional truth in unlikely places. His “Dazed and Confused”, an “American Graffiti” for the bongs ‘n Aerosmith generation, put seventies keggers in the time capsule like no film before or since. “Before Sunrise” injected pheromones into the talk-heavy approach of “My Dinner with Andre”, and Waking Life poured experimental animation over the top of its equally rich conversations. Unlike so many self-consciously cold movies of late (Attack of the Clones, The Matrix: Reloaded), Linklater’s films dance and crackle with the warm words of impassioned thinkers.
“The School of Rock” follows such a tradition. Its hero, Dewey Finn (Jack Black), is an underachieving twentysomething indifferent to work, higher education, or ambition of any sort. However, there’s a romantic, idealistic heart beating beneath Dewey’s stale clothes and sub-par hygiene. The conduits, valves, and circuits of his brain respond only to select neurotransmitters. As in, Black Sabbath, Motorhead, and Ted Nugent. L Dopa? Forget it. Led Zeppelin? Now you’re talking.
Dewey, however, is a slave to his own unbridled enthusiasm for music. As “School of Rock” opens in the shadowy, catacomb-like caverns of a smoky rock club, its stage-aimed camera reveals that Dewey is a guitarist. His portly mass stammers like a charging rhino on amphetamines, or a tubby Angus Young. No, wait – now it’s Pete Townsend whirling his helicopter-blade arm! But, then again, the flashing tongue is all Gene Simmons! Ultimately, Dewey appears as a tragically un-hip, flailing butt-rock cliché, ending the set with an ill-fated stage dive onto the concrete floor.
It’s not long before this guitar-strumming sad sack is booted from his band. Dewey’s unhinged onstage mania might be sincere, but it’s not cool. Meanwhile, his roommate is demanding rent reimbursement. What’s an unskilled, unemployed, unmotivated, aging rocker to do? Dewey schmoozes his way into a substitute teaching job. With no credentials or experience, he forges a resume packet and impresses a prudish, old maid principal (Joan Cusack). Even so, she has a bad feeling about the new hire, especially after Dewey’s first day request to “cut out early.”
As Jack Black “orients” his classroom full of impressionable pupils, “School of Rock” really hits its stride. Linklater dodges the old “students from hell” cliché by making Dewey’s charges a perfectly poised, well-behaved bunch. No spitwads, no paper airplanes. All the more fun to watch the group’s mentor tarnish such mild manners with his lowbrow influence. “Look, here’s the deal,” explains an unshaven, bleary-eyed Dewey after stumbling in for his first class. “I’ve got a hangover, a headache, and the runs.”
Meanwhile, the educational guru uses a less-than-subtle approach for teaching life’s harsh realities. “The world is run by The Man,” he whines. “It will crush your soul. You’ll end up a fat, washed-up loser. Just give up.” Obviously, Dewey champions a rather harsh worldview.
For good reason, such tactics might come across as a parent’s worst nightmare. Yet, as “School of Rock” familiarizes us with Dewey’s routine and introduces us to his young students, we come to realize that this is one nightmare that might be a blessing in disguise. A stifled young man acknowledges that his dad never allowed him to play electric guitar. Soon, the liberated lass is wielding Dewey’s Flying V and strumming the chords to “Iron Man.” A piano player is handed a stack of Doors CD’s for homework, all the better to embrace keyboards. Soon, the entire classroom has re-invented itself as a cherubic musical force to be reckoned with.
Dewey likes his students. If his methods are crude, it’s merely a reflection of this ignorant savage’s own social shortcomings. He might not be cool to his peers, but this guy’s unmannered, pure zest for all things rock is contagious with children too young to know the difference. He’s also an advocate for these insecure youngsters. When a portly African American girl worries that her size will be viewed as an embarrassing liability onstage, Black reminds the reluctant singer that “Aretha Franklin is a big lady” that everyone wants to party with.
Meanwhile, Linklater is careful to avoid another overused cliché by depicting rock not as a sinister, evil force, but as an agent for cathartic release and healthy emotional management. “I like your delivery,” praises the instructor after a youngun belts out some lyrics, “‘cause I could feel your anger.” The comment acts as a segue way into anger management lessons, with Dewey leading his troops through an anti-bully anthem called, “Step Off.” Better to vicariously act out one’s anger, Black suggests, than to take it out on classmates, parents, siblings – or oneself.
Why is it that “School of Rock” succeeds at its mission while other high-concept, “cute” movies like Big Daddy sink faster than an iron butterfly? Perhaps its because Linklater and his actors understand passion. They understand enthusiasm. Black’s delivery – think John Belushi with Jack Nicholson’s overactive eyebrows – isn’t self-conscious or eccentrically hip. There’s an honesty to his convictions that any pre-grunge rocker who has ever strummed an air guitar in front of a mirror can relate to.
The film’s supporting players also make beautiful noise together, contrasting Black’s sensational turn with other, equally recognizable shades of humanity. Playing Dewey’s withdrawn, pussywhipped roommate Ned, Mike White (who also wrote the film’s screenplay) represents the fallen leagues of failed rockers who give up on their dreams. “I’m not a satanic sex god anymore,” Ned laments, his domineering, superbitch girlfriend (Sarah Silverman) looking on with controlling approval. Meanwhile, Cusack plays prissy Principal Mullins as someone so tightly-wound and tense, she’s prone to manic Stevie Nicks impersonations to let off steam, after having her inhibitions drowned by a couple of beers.
Linklater’s latest joyride is also a hymn to the importance of teamwork and camaraderie. Music lovers are like war veterans or Trekkies, with their own cliques, cults, and cultural bonds. Such rock ‘n roll brotherhood is best conjured forth in a late scene in which Dewey and his students-come-bandmates huddle together before performing their first public gig. “Oh, God of Rock,” he prays, “thank you for giving us the opportunity to kick some a*s tonight.”
“School of Rock” kicks a*s. It’s one movie that definitely goes to eleven.