A showcase for its volatile star’s bull-in-a-china-shop shtick, The School of Rock may well be director Richard Linklater’s best shot for a mainstream hit to date. A surprise crowd- and critic-pleaser at the recently concluded Toronto Film Festival, the movie stars Jack Black and a clutch of talented child actors, as inspiring teacher and impressionable students respectively. The mix of those ingredients yields a disarmingly high-concept cocktail: think of it as Zero for Conduct by way of Tenacious D.
The twist is that the teacher acts more like a kid than his students. Black plays Dewey Finn, a wannabe rock star whose raison d’etre is to win the local Battle of the Bands competition. As the big day approaches, Dewey suffers a setback: he loses his band. Kicked off for his insufferable stage antics — interminable solos, guitar-hero posturing, a weakness for stage-diving — Dewey vows to form his own band and start a revolution.
Reality comes in the form of his friend Ned (Mike White, also the film’s screenwriter) and Ned’s nag of a girlfriend, Patty (Sarah Silverman). She demands the mooching Dewey either pay rent or move out of their living room. Pressed for cash, Dewey snags the first opportunity that comes his way, a gig as a substitute teacher at an elite prep school. Never mind that he’s not actually trained for the job, or that he uses Ned’s name and resume to get it…
Unabashedly implausible, The School of Rock truly begins once the filmmakers let Black loose in the halls of Horace Green Elementary School. Dewey discovers that the bookworms in his stead are also gifted musicians. The knowledge deficit seems insurmountable (“Don’t tell me you guys haven’t gotten the Led out?!” cries an alarmed Dewey of his rock-ignorant charges), but the talent is too great to ignore. The substitute gig becomes his personal redemption project, with Dewey starting up his own band of prep-school grade-grubbers to win him the Battle of the Bands.
With a plot reminiscent of eye-rollers like Dangerous Minds and Music of the Heart, this is the most conventional movie of Linklater’s eclectic career. White’s pedestrian script notwithstanding, The School of Rock is infused with sweetness and intelligence. Linklater doesn’t so much elevate the material as give it its best possible expression. It’s a movie of graceful tracking shots and crafty set pieces, a pleasant change from the sitcom-level hackwork that afflicts most studio comedies.
Even better than his camerawork is Linklater’s handling of his young cast. As Dazed and Confused proved, he’s a fine director of ensembles, not to mention a brilliant vibe-setter. The children in The School of Rock blessedly avoid the preening that passes for precocity in Hollywood. Largely movie newbies and some of them classically trained musicians, the children are convincing empty vessels. Dewey downscales rock’s animating spirit to a level his students understand. Bullies, chores, no allowance: these are all The Man, Dewey argues, and only by rebelling against him can there be rock.
Bedecked with songs from the canon — Ramones, The Who, Cream, Bowie, etc. — the movie is as obsessed with rock as its hero. It’s an uncritical love: the movie makes no judgments when Dewey peddles prog-rock bombast alongside punk classics to his eager disciples. The toothless appreciation of all things riff-driven can be disappointing — the film’s faux-Rolling Stone poster is a reminder of its safe taste — but it also gets at the movie’s genial spirit. The all-consuming fondness for rock, its mythology and idiom, is Dewey’s essence, and far be it for the movie to frown on such innocent fervor. (It’s an outlook that belies the movie’s hip production lineage: shepherding the children throughout the production was Jim O’Rourke, a composer and producer who has worked and played with Sonic Youth, Wilco, and Stereolab.)
The School of Rock‘s behind-the-camera pedigree may be impressive, but the movie is unmistakably Black’s: Linklater winds him up and watches him go. Mainlining its star’s pinball energy, School at times feels like nothing more than a fragile frame for the combustible comedian. Written with him in mind, Dewey is the closest filmic approximation of Black’s persona in Tenacious D, his two-piece folk-heavy metal act with Kyle Gass. I haven’t seen an actor so completely give a studio comedy its identity since Jim Carrey’s slapstick heyday. As with Carrey’s movies, enjoyment of The School of Rock hinges on its unhinged star turn.
For all of his inexhaustible supply of mojo, Black does hit dead spots. At his best when he’s performing at other people rather than with them, Black can’t quite pull off the two-handers with Joan Cusack, who plays Ms. Mullins, the school’s straight-laced principal. White’s script also succumbs to cheap laughs of the dubious sort. The preview audience of largely teen boys chortled loudly at the lines given to Lawrence (Robert Tsai), a 12-year-old keyboard player of Asian descent with a thick accent. Another kid, Billy (Brian Falduto), is appointed the band’s stylist; his budding appreciation for fashion and Liza Minnelli tip him as an easy target.
But it would be churlish to deny Dewey — and Black — his ultimate victory. While it never truly transcends the limitations of its assembly-line template (the movie is more classic than punk rock), The School of Rock is tremendous fun anyway. A welcome reminder that studio comedies need not be shoddy, dumbed down, vulgar, and impersonal, the movie is unimaginable without Black. It’s nothing less than a new peak in his career, and the satisfying apotheosis of his frenzied, brilliant comedy.