School of Rock (***)

Posted on October 18th, 2003 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

Another star is born. Jack Black has slowly been working his way up the movie role food chain, starting with small roles in movies like Waterworld, Bob Roberts, Demolition Man, The Cable Guy, and Mars Attacks, and then moving up to more visible roles in such films as High Fidelity and Shallow Hal. And now, in School of Rock, he has grabbed the mic in his first big, mainstream, successful starring vehicle.

He is starting to be compared with John Belushi and Chris Farley, and I think those comparisons are close to the mark. Black has a unique style, and while he doesn’t appear to trying to emulate either of them (or anyone else), he does have Belushi’s commanding presence and Farley’s endearing earnestness, as well as the comic abilities shared by both. One hopes that Black will be able control the conflagrations of fame to become an enduring fixture, and not a brightly blazing, but too soon extinguished, shooting star.

The film itself is laugh-out-loud funny and charming, and manages to be family-friendly without slipping over into smarmy sweetness. The story follows Dewey Finn (Black’s character), who is a fringe-dweller in his town’s local music scene, as he gets kicked out of the band he helped found (to be replaced by a guy with less talent but better abs, tats, and hair) and finds himself broke and jobless and facing eviction from his apartment by his roommate’s girlfriend if he can’t cough up the back rent. Dewey’s roommate is a substitute teacher, and one day Dewey fields a call from a school looking for an emergency substitute, and ends up taking the position himself (while masquerading as his roommate).

The school turns out to be the finest private prep school in town, and Dewey’s students are all refined, polite, and highly intelligent. He tells the kids that they’re going to have permanent recess in his class, scams some munchies from one of the kids, and promptly does a whole lot of nothing else as he avoids the pinched headmistress (played with tightly-wound conviction by Joan Cusack) and attempts to keep up the charade long enough to get a paycheck without having to actually do anything.

But when his kids head down the hall for music class, Dewey follows them and finds out that they are talented musicians and singers. By the time the kids come back to his class, Dewey has schlepped in all the band instruments from his van and has decided that he and these kids are going to win the upcoming Battle of the Bands, giving him revenge on his former bandmates. The problem is that the kids are schooled in classical music, not rock and roll, but this only inspires Dewey to become, of all things, an impassioned teacher. And his lessons, ostensibly about the history and art of metal rock, are, in true Hollywood fashion, metaphoric life lessons.

And also in true Hollywood fashion, Dewey learns from the experience, too. He has written his one great song, a Zeppelin-esque rock ballad/anthem, complete with deeply mystical lyrics and overblown orchestrations, and he thinks this is the song that will take his new band to victory at the contest. However, one of the students writes his own song, a simpler but ultimately more powerful song based on his own troubled relationship with his success-focused father. Dewey recognizes the superiority of the song, and learns that being a leader means using the best ideas, even if they’re not yours. And the band goes on to overcome tribulations, compete, and while they don’t win, they do triumph, and learn that it’s more important to be true to yourself and your art than to win.

Jack Black shines here as Dewey, imparting the pure joy of his love of music and convincingly portraying his evolution from slacker-loser to deserving shaper of young minds. The kids are played by actual musical prodigies with little or no formal acting experience. This results in performances that, while rough around the edges, are better than anything that could have come from precocious acting veterans, because these kids play their own instruments and sing their own songs, and that more than makes up for the occasional lack of acting polish.

All-in-all, this film is a trifle, but it is a very enjoyable one. It will be interesting to see how Jack Black handles his new movie-star status, and how he balances his own roots in the mock-rock band Tenacious D with the pull of Hollywood and the lure of superstardom. I’m already reading stories where Jack Black talks about his schedule being so hectic that he’s using pills to control his sleep cycle. I don’t know if these quotes are accurate, but they seem eerily familiar. Let’s hope that his rock opera turns out to be heroic, and not tragic.

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