School of Rock
Dir.: Richard Linklater
PG-13, 108 min.
Opening Friday at area theater
Is it embarrassing to admit that School of Rock made me cry? Not “I laughed so hard I cried” or “I choked up a little at the end,” but full-body, empathetic sobs? Yes, School of Rock is a silly comedy, an homage to the old “geeks make good” teen comedies of the ’80s; and yes, the movie stars alt-comedy buffoon Jack Black, doing his distinctive, somewhat obnoxious facial and vocal slapstick. But it’s also a movie about the democratizing power of rock music, and movies about pop and rock have a strange powersomething about the poignancy of watching human beings work together to communicate.
Black plays slobby unemployed guitarist Dewey Finn, about to be kicked out of his apartment by old friend Ned Schneebly, played by Mike White, who also wrote the script. When Dewey intercepts a phone-call offering Ned a substitute-teaching job, Dewey decides to impersonate his friend, figuring he’s capable of baby-sitting private-school preteens. When he realizes that six hours a day is a big chunk of time to fill, he initiates a class project: training his kids to rock, so that they can back him at the upcoming Battle of the Bands.
It’s in the rock ’n’ roll history, appreciation “and theory” (Dewey’s words) that School of Rock rises and falls. Jack Black’s ongoing comic persona is a simultaneous celebration and mockery of the rock lifestyle. He seems to love shredding metal guitar solos, kick-ass light shows and flickering lighters in darkened arenas, but his enthusiast characters also tend to be goofballs, which makes their pleasures a little guiltier than he probably intends.
School of Rock is equally lax with its genre formulas. Dewey gets his overachieving charges to loosen up and rebel a little, but the movie doesn’t give enough credence to the inherent value of these kids’ brightness and discipline. The teacher does learn something from his students, but by rights it should have more to do with how music intersects with math, science, history and literature. Instead, Dewey gives a class full of TRL-saturated kids an education on rock’s true spirit, culminating in a moving montage of rockers like Keith Moon, Joey Ramone and Joe Strummer (who simultaneously symbolize how rock’s pure essence can corrode). Meanwhile, the kids remind the solo-happy guitarist that rock is a collaborative art, and that he needs to share the spotlight.
This is where director Richard Linklater’s sensibility comes into play. White has shown a gift for comic exaggeration of the everyday in his scripts for The Good Girl and Chuck & Buck, but it’s Linklater whose belief in community and human warmth has made films like Dazed & Confused and Waking Life into cult favorites. The director is just as open to his characters’ potential in School of Rockeven Joan Cusack’s prim dean gets to enjoy the restorative powers of making a joyful noise. (Only Ned’s uptight girlfriend, played by Sarah Silverman, is excluded from the partya mistake, in my book.)
The movie builds to the Battle of the Bands, and a moment that should resonate with anyone who’s ever imagined blowing away an audience at a big rock show. The filmmakers seem to understand that the “singing into the bedroom mirror” fantasy isn’t just about fame and ego, but about being heard and appreciated, and they rightly make their climactic scene about sincere people getting their due. Then Linklater trumps that climax in School of Rock’s closing credits, which feature an exuberant reminder that talent thrives only with plenty of support.
Megan Fox and Dave Barry
Walton Goggins for Fox. Claire Danes, if you squint, for Barry.
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