The School of Rock
review by KJ
Doughton, 22 August 2003
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, Matrix Reloaded), Linklater’s films dance and
crackle with the warm words of impassioned thinkers.
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
cliche, ending the set with an ill-fated stage dive onto the
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” cliche 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 low-brow 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
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 young ‘un belts out some lyrics,
“‘cause I could feel your anger.”
The comment acts as a segueway 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 –
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
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-cum-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 ass tonight.”
of Rock” kicks ass. It’s one movie that definitely
goes to eleven.