Film Reviews: Wednesday, October 1, 2003
The School of Rock\r\nStarring Jack Black and 15 kids. Directed by Richard Linklater. Written by Mike White. Rated PG-13.
Sonic Youth

Jack Black and a bunch of kids kick out the jams in the rollicking The School of Rock.


In making The School of Rock, Richard Linklater has gone Hollywood and made an unabashed grab at the brass ring of big-time success. That’s something we haven’t seen an indie filmmaker of his stature try since Steven Soderbergh directed Out of Sight five years ago. Soderbergh’s movie deserved major-hit status and didn’t get it. (Why? Why?) Let’s hope a happier fate awaits Linklater’s marvelous comedy, the best to come out of Hollywood so far this year. Heck, let’s do more than hope. Let’s buy tickets in bulk and give them out to kids on the street, because the movie’s just so much fun.

Though it’s as compulsively watchable as Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, and Waking Life, this movie doesn’t have the same hipster-intellectual vibe as Linklater’s other films. Instead, it’s closer to the movies penned by its screenwriter Mike White, whose body of work is as distinctive as that of many directors. Like the main characters of White’s The Good Girl and Chuck & Buck, Dewey Finn (Jack Black) is at a point in his life where he has to decide whether to pursue his adolescent aspirations or give them up forever. In his case, he dreams of being a rock star, and he’s one of the few guys left who believes wholeheartedly that rock music can change the world.

Unfortunately, his band has just kicked him out, and his best friend Ned (played by White) is insisting that he pay his share of back rent. In desperate straits, Dewey uses Ned’s name to fake his way into a job as a substitute teacher at a prep school. There, he discovers (to his delight) that the kids in his fifth-grade class are brimming with musical talent, and (to his horror) that they’ve never heard of Led Zeppelin. He goes about converting them into his own rock group, determined to upstage his former bandmates and win a Battle of the Bands contest.

This could have gone wrong so easily. A movie with this many little kids has myriad opportunities to be mawkish and unbearably cute, but White neither stoops to melodrama nor turns the children into precocious wisecrackers. The filmmakers let them be spazzy and awkward, the way real-life kids are. The only precocity here is in the fantastic musical abilities of the 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds who become the band that shares the movie’s name. (For the record, they are guitarist Joey Gaydos Jr., bassist Rebecca Brown, keyboardist Robert Tsai, drummer Kevin Clark, and backup singers Maryam Hassan, Aleisha Allen, and Caitlin Hale.) The scene in which Dewey recruits his band members and has them play the various parts of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” layering on the instruments one by one, is almost mystical in how it captures the music’s intricacies.

The movie derives as much of its personality from Jack Black and his 1970s-metal-influenced musical taste as it does from the filmmakers. (Does Black worship groups like Pink Floyd and Motorhead or parody them? He probably doesn’t know himself, which is what makes him cool.) Some people find him overbearing, but even the most diehard anti-Black moviegoers will have to admit that he’s completely in his element here, shredding guitars and clowning as much for the kids around him as he does for us. The glow that comes over him as he passes along his musical knowledge to a roomful of curious, responsive students will resonate with anyone who knows the joy of being a teacher. His manic comic style becomes downright ingratiating when he shows the guitarist how to copy the onstage manner of a guitar god. (“Now raise your goblet of rock! Nod your head and make your eyes real wide like there’s something wrong! Yeah!”)

The movie makes ingenious use of all the kids in the class, from the computer genius (James Hosey) to the boy who’s interested in fabrics and hairstyles (Brian Falduto) to the two kids Dewey puts in charge of security, telling them, “Your first assignment is soundproofing this classroom.” Dewey defuses a potential troublemaker, the class’ snotty, straight-arrow overachiever (Miranda Cosgrove), with a stroke of genius — by elevating her to the position of band manager. Joan Cusack chips in as the school’s stern principal who turns out to be a closeted Stevie Nicks fan. Linklater’s fluid direction allows all these characters their moments and gives the impression of life bursting through every corner of the frame.

The School of Rock’s rip-roaring climactic number is a musical apotheosis that puts Jack Black and company on a level with (yes! I dare say it!) Spinal Tap in the pantheon of fictitious bands. There’s a blissful coda, too, as they do a cover version of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock & Roll)” over the end credits. It’s a fitting conclusion to this movie that pays tribute to all the musicians who’ll never be famous yet continue to rock out because the music is its own reward. If there’s a better message to give our kids, I can’t think of it.

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