School of Rock Hits the Right Notes
The list of great Rock ‘n’ Roll movies is a short one. For some inexplicable reason, it is near impossible to get the crazed, cutting-edge insanity of head-banging musicianship translated up on the big screen. The Beatles got it right with A Hard Day’s Night, as did Cameron Crowe with Almost Famous. The same with Rob Reiner with his classic mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap.
Now the idiosyncratic independent filmmaker Richard Linklater (Waking Life, Dazed and Confused), working from a script by the equally individualistic Mike White (Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl), takes his turn trying to craft something most excellent with School of Rock. Starring comedian (and Tenacious D frontman) Jack Black, this impressive creative team has crafted an amusing, high-energy sensation that’s one part Mr. Holland’s Opus, two parts This Is Spinal Tap, and one final dash of Heavy Metal-meets-The Bad News Bears anarchy for good measure.
Black plays wannabe rock star and all-around layabout Dewey Finn. After a disastrous showing at a local club, the band he started kicks him out of their lives. Making matters worse, the spiteful girlfriend of best friend and roommate Ned (writer White) has convinced her beau that Dewey needs to start paying rent. Knowing he needs cash to put together a new band (forget the avalanche of unpaid bills), the lazy good-for-nothing impersonates Ned and takes his job subbing at a local private elementary school.
Initially, Finn can’t believe what’s going on at this school. These kids actually like the idea of education, and having a professor who only wants to teach them the basics of getting over a hangover is not their cup of morning orange juice. But after overhearing them practice in music class, the failed musician is struck with inspiration: He’ll turn the kids into his new band and use them to win first prize in a local competition. Soon this diverse collection of students are not learning their fractions or how to use the Dewey Decimal System, but instead the merits of a Led Zepplin guitar riff, the glories of an Aretha Franklin wail, and the sublime splendor of a thundering Queen drum solo.
School of Rock should not work. The last thing the world really needs is another feel-good teacher movie where student and educator alike are elevated because of the relationship. The students learn to take risks and find inspiration to make a difference in the world. The teacher comes to understand they can make an indelible mark by helping to shape young minds and giving them something personal and unique to strive for. We’ve seen it countless times before.
I get the feeling Linklater, White, and Black are aware of all of this. As such, their story is not one where major lessons are learned. People do not change their entire outlooks on life overnight. Severely flawed human beings do not suddenly become whole thanks to one selfless act (or even a small handful of them).
Instead, this is a crude, loopy, and slightly unhinged music-driven comedy. It’s been cobbled together almost as if it were some unapologetically deranged bootleg album from a popular band looking to shake up their sound. School of Rock is disorganized and ungainly, and I must admit it is not always altogether fun to watch.
But, boy is it ever funny, and as far as the grand scheme is concerned, that’s all that matters.
Black is a commanding presence. His first real above-the-title role, he grabs the mic and refuses to let go — even when the ensemble cast of talented youngsters keeps threatening to upstage him. His Dewey doesn’t learn all that much by the time the film’s over, and much like Walter Matthau in The Bad News Bears, he’s still pretty much a giant, selfish slob. But he also discovers that helping kids learn about The Sex Pistols and Chuck Berry can be kind of fun, and Black’s euphoria at this revelation is all kinds of wonderful.
Speaking of those kids, they’re all terrific, and this comedy would be lost without them. Linklater gives each one their due and at least one scene apiece to shine. The standout performance is delivered by Robert Tsai, the band’s keyboardist. Watching him loosen up, finding the nuance in every note and keystroke while arguing with his dad about the merits of “rocking out” is a hoot. But, they’re all great, each member of the ensemble, and all of them deserve their own paragraph overflowing with praise.
The film has its faults. It is disjointed in places, and a few of the adult characters are exceedingly unpleasant, and not amusingly so. I could have done without much of the stereotyping, especially when it came to the sure-to-be-gay kid, and the adults are all a mixture of idiot and idiot savant. It’s also hard to cut too much slack to a comedy that does the impossible and makes the wonderful Joan Cusack unfunny. Her character, a stern school administrator, even comments at one point, “There was a time when I was funny.” Yes, Joan, there was, but sadly not here, and that’s almost unforgivable.
Almost. Overall, School of Rock caught me by surprise. It features some pretty big laughs and gets the essence of what makes great Rock ‘n’ Roll timeless. While Linklater’s latest isn’t a major Lalapalooza-style event, Black and his talented troupe of playmates still hit a lot of right notes, making this a cinematic concert worth snagging floor tickets to experience.
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)