Baby Boomers’ dominance over American culture has reached new levels with The School of Rock. One can just imagine the producers in the board room salivating over their brilliant, novel idea whose time finally has arrived: a family movie about rock ’n’ roll.
But never mind the incredible irony or smattering of hypocrisy behind what’s possibly the first rock film marketed specifically to parents. That’s because The School of Rock is consistently funny, despite a plot that’s as predictable as a September heat wave in San Francisco.
The sometimes brainy, sometimes wacky director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Waking Life, Slacker) makes the most of the "gather-the-kids-onto-a-winning-team" formula by paying attention to the terrific detail in the clever script by Mike White (Chuck and Buck). Yet the movie belongs to the frenetic Jack Black, who at every instance upstages the sassy and remarkably real-looking kids with whom he shares the screen.
Black plays Dewey Finn, a down-on-his-luck, egomaniacal freeloader whose mediocre talent gets him thrown out of his band only weeks before a big "Battle of the Bands" contest with a lucrative prize comes to town. So when a school principal (a pleasantly low-keyed Joan Cusack) mistakes Dewey for his well-meaning substitute teacher friend Ned Schneebly (White) over the phone, Dewey answers the call and shows up at an exclusive prep school to make a few fast bucks by impersonating a teacher.
Though it’s preposterous that no one ever checks to see what the new teacher is doing, it’s also amusing to see him toss away the lesson plan and authorize a day-long recess. But teaching does enter the picture soon enough, when Dewey/Ned overhears the kids during their music class, and realizes he has the raw material to make a new band in time for the big competition. Seven kids in the class join the group; the rest fulfill other important duties, such as special effects, costumes, security, management – and even groupies.
Yes, the cliches abound: The Asian piano virtuoso soon rocks out on keyboards, the snippy gay kid goes overboard with sequins on the costumes and the know-it-all girl in the front row becomes the savvy band manager. And yes, it’s absolutely no surprise that the kiddies ultimately get to be kick-butt rockers after Black plants some simple seeds of so-called rebellion in them. But Black leads them there with such zeal (and family-oriented!) abandon, his charm is difficult to resist.
Even the utterly obvious guitar riff lesson featuring "Smoke on The Water" and a lecture on the importance of Led Zeppelin are appealing in Black’s hands. Better yet is the extensive genealogical family tree of the various sub-genres of rock that covers the classroom’s chalk board.
A few moments of the movie explore real issues in a sweet way. Black smartly braces the spirit of a genuinely talented large girl who is afraid to sing in front of others because she’s fat by letting her know the power of Aretha Franklin. He does it without being sappy. In the end, that modest sentimentality coupled with some pithy rock ‘n’ roll details give power to the slight, but not stupid, The School of Rock. Chances are it’ll be the first of a series of rock movies for parents to watch with their children; chances are it’ll be the best.
– Leslie Katz