School of Rock

I know a guy who was probably in his teens when KISS were at their peak of popularity in the ’70s, and who now has a son who’s happy to go to the more recent KISS concerts with his dad. School of Rock is for that guy and his son: Two generations lock hands over bone-crushing guitar solos and the “stick it to the Man” ethos of rock. And when I say “rock,” I don’t mean the bland growling noise that passes for rock today; I mean rawwwk, dude, the soundtrack of the ’70s — not only heavy-metal titans like AC/DC and Led Zep, but also more contemplative outfits like Steely Dan and Pink Floyd. Doesn’t have to break windows, man, it just has to blow your mind and melt your face.

School of Rock is a loving valentine to true rock, disguised as a kiddie movie incongruously starring Jack Black and even more incongruously directed by Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Waking Life) and written by Mike White (Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl). What are all these people doing messing around with a kids’ movie? Well, they’re not, even if it has kids in it.

White has devised a rather shrewd premise: Black plays Dewey Finn, an egomaniacal singer/guitarist — wait, that’s sort of a redundancy — who gets booted from his band for being, well, a singer/guitarist. He pulls killer solos, capers around onstage, and leaps into the audience to surf the crowd. He’s not the lead singer, but he doesn’t know that. Meanwhile, he’s living with his substitute-teacher buddy (screenwriter White), who used to be in a crazy rock band before settling down, and his buddy’s bitchy girlfriend (Sarah Silverman), the kind of girlfriend who lives to domesticate her man and strangle his dreams. Dewey needs money to pay the rent or Ms. Bitchy will kick him to the curb, so he snags one of his buddy’s substitute jobs at an elite private school.

Weaving from a hangover, Dewey stands before the class — full of a bunch of already-neurotic overachievers, driven to succeed by their yuppie parents — and declares that there will be no grades, no learning, and lots of recess. But he happens to glimpse a few of them in a music class, and sees that they have talent. Wheels turn in Dewey’s head, and his “secret class project” gets underway. The classical guitarist in the class becomes “Zack Attack,” learning Black Sabbath riffs. A shy, chubby girl unfurls a voice to rival Aretha. The cymbal player gets set loose on a full set of drums. The bashful piano player is pointed towards a keyboard and given Rick Wakeman as homework. Dewey knows his classic rock, and the movie does, too. Linklater, whose nostalgic masterpiece Dazed and Confused was loaded with the stuff, feels the down-and-dirty transportive power of “The Immigrant Song” or “The Great Gig in the Sky.”

Make no mistake: School of Rock breathes mainstream air. It’s another case of independent film artists beating Hollywood at its own game (it’s being distributed by Paramount, but its many symbols of anti-authority rock don’t feel misplaced). The script is something of a first for Mike White, who here seems to be engaging in Hollywood formula to study its habits. There is, for instance, an uptight school principal (Joan Cusack) who must eventually loosen up and appreciate the band Dewey forms with the kids; but Joan Cusack plays her as an update of her harried mom in Say Anything, of whom Lloyd Dobler said “You used to be warped and twisted and hilarious.” I believed that then, and I believe it now.

Would there be a movie without Jack Black? Maybe, but not as fun. Black’s performance, while toned down for PG-13 consumption, loses none of its hellraising glee, and he makes us buy Dewey’s skewed altruism in teaching the kids about Iron Maiden and Led Zep; these kids don’t even know what rock is, for God’s sake, they need help. The movie threatens to veer into Dead Poets Society territory when we learn that some of the parents don’t approve of Dewey’s methods. After all, rock will not help their children compete in the real world. Maybe not — and the script acknowledges that with the outcome of the Battle of the Bands the kids enter — but the purpose of rock is not to win or lose; the purpose of rock is to rock. Dewey plausibly teaches a bunch of post-rock kids the power of old-school rock, and maybe a lot of viewers young and old will learn it from this movie, too. Well, except that guy and his son. They already know.

Explore posts in the same categories: comedy

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