The School of Rock (2003)

When you watch it, you can tell he’s totally willing to fall on his face. And I don’t mean that in any bad way.
— Jim Rourke, Music Consultant, “Lessons Learned in School of Rock

I didn’t do it for the grade.
— Summer (Miranda Cosgrove), School of Rock

“Richard brings reality, and he brings an honesty, and like, a believability to the thing,” says Jack Black of his School of Rock director Richard Linklater. Black goes on, “Which is important because I’m always going 10 miles too far over the top, and sometimes I have a tendency to go crazy ham and cheese, and he reins me in.” All of this sounds right, given Black’s reputation for excess and what he calls, going for the “ridonculous.” And then, the making-of documentary, “Lessons Learned in School of Rock,” cuts to Linklater, who says, “That was not an agenda of mine, to rein him in any way… He was easy to work with. I don’t ever want to create the impression that he was this Tasmanian devil of energy.”

And there you have it, the Jack Black story in something approximating a nutshell. On one hand, he’s a spastically creative genius, in need of restraint. And on the other, he’s a perfectly charming creative genius, hardworking, generous, and committed to his sundry arts. As long as you recognize the genius part, apparently, you can go with either version. Included on Paramount’s newly released DVD of School of Rock, “Lessons Learned” spends many of its 25 minutes reinforcing the legacy: Black speaks often, as does the endlessly inventive Linklater and the passel of talented children who costar in the movie. “The kids rehearsed more than me,” asserts Black, “because I had a lot of things to work on and do, and I needed my beauty rest.”

So okay, he’s not inclined to be serious, even for documentary purposes. And that’s what you like about him, his capacity to “go crazy ham and cheese,” his fearlessness and his energy. This makes Jack Black special, and it makes School of Rock, which Mike white wrote for him, a wholly ideal vehicle. Black’s character, the substitute teacher Dewey Finn, is, as Linklater observes, “more juvenile” than the 10- and 11-year-olds who surround him (or again, as Joey Gaydos Jr. puts it, “He acts like he’s 11 years old, just like me”). According to Black, he worked hard to make his performance convincing: “I had to learn how to play electric guitar a little bit because all I play is acoustic guitar. And I’m still not very good at electric guitar. And the truth is, I’m not very good at acoustic guitar, but I make up for it with intensity.” Indeed.

This intensity is on full display in the film and on the commentary track he shares with Linklater (White was sick with the flu, and so, sadly did not participate). Here they display their shared affection for the children and the extraordinary Joan Cusack (“Joan is a tweaker; she was always touching her own glasses between takes”), along with their shared goals (Black asserts, “I just wanted to avoid the cuteness” and Linklater agrees, “We were all on the same page with that one”). The DVD also includes Black’s vigorous “Pitch to Led Zeppelin” (a taped plea for permission to use “Immigrant Song” for the soundtrack), his 2003 MTV Diary, a music video reuniting the band, a “Kids’ Kommentary” track (in which they mimic line readings [“Read between the lines!”], crack silly jokes, and giggle at memories of the shot, as kids should be doing), and a “Kids’ Video Diary: Toronto Film Festival.”

The movie, happily, allows for all kinds of lively (and some subtle) exchanges between the children and Black. In his mind, Dewey is a rock star. Raucously self-confident, attacking his guitar like Pete Townshend and imagining he’s beloved by as-yet-unseen legions of fans, Dewey leads his band at a local club each weekend, where, zapped by the energy he feels surging all around him, he launches himself from the stage into the crowd. Whereupon the unimpressed patrons duly part and let him fall — thwomp — on the floor.

In the movie, Dewey exists somewhere between earnest rock devotee and full-blown goof. Much like Black’s oblivious persona for his faux-real band Tenacious D (with Kyle Gass), Dewey is so immersed in his fantasy that he can’t even imagine other options. Even as his aspirations plainly outstrip his talent (and fan base), Dewey refuses to give up the dream, man, and resents former band mate Ned Schneebly (White) for doing just that when he became a substitute teacher. Dewey’s resentment stops short of actually cutting off contact. In fact, he’s been sleeping in his buddy’s living room, inciting high-expectations Ned’s girlfriend Patty (Sarah Silverman) to insist that he start paying rent.

Kicked out of his band (whom he excoriates for being “wannabe corporate sell-outs”), Dewey is suddenly desperate. When the opportunity presents itself, he poses as Ned to get a gig — teaching. At Horace Green Elementary, Dewey unexpectedly finds his calling, as headbanging Pied Piper to a class full of kids who don’t know the difference between Pink Floyd and the Doors. When prim principal Rosalie Mullins (Cusack, whose pert restraint perfectly counterpoints Black’s too-muchness) to hire him, he insists, “I’m a teacher: all I need are minds to mold.”

Assigned to shepherd a flock of fifth graders, Dewey’s “philosophy of teaching” runs counter to tradition (“As long as I’m here,” he declares, “there will be no grades”). When he discovers that several of his charges have musical aptitude, he turns them into a band for him to front and take all the way to the local Battle of the Bands. Non-musicians are assigned other crucial roles –groupies, band security, band manager, lighting designer, and stylist (this last is a boy Dewey nicknames “Fancy Pants,” a kid with a fondness for magenta and sequins, as predictable in his way as Dewey is in his).

Initially skeptical, one by one, the kids warm to the idea, convinced that the climactic Battle constitutes a graded project. Their performances are warm and sweet, including guitarist Zack (Gaydos, whom Black righteously introduces as “Shreddy Kreuger”), belty backup singer Tomika (10-year-old knockout Maryam Hassan), shy keyboardist Lawrence (Robert Tsai), eager drummer Freddy (Kevin Clark), and uptight A-student turned manager Summer (Miranda Cosgrove). While the film clearly belongs to Black, and he fully occupies every minute of it, the kids’ low-key affects help to offset his trademark mania; as he exhorts them to resist “The Man,” in between lessons in Rock History and Rock Appreciation and Theory, they start to have fun with their new mission in life, pretending to learn math when Miss Mullins comes by or convincing their parents that listening to Hendrix is “homework.”

The kids’ hard work paid off (even beyond subsequent castings in other movies). When they appeared on the Tonight Show, as the band called “The School of Rock,” these sudden rock stars more than held their own, even as Black careened and cavorted. As Linklater notes on the commentary track, making the film reminded him — and by extension, everyone involved and watching — what school can do. “It’s so sad,” he sighs over an early image of the kids seated in rows, “when you get kind of a lame education, all the subjects, that as an adult, you discover really are interesting. But you look back on your own education and go, ‘God, that was so boringly presented, some teacher sitting in the front of the classroom reading from a book.'” School of Rock, and more specifically, Jack Black, offer a refreshing alternative lesson.