School of Rock is both better and worse than I expected.
Any movie by the maker of Wanking … er, Waking Life that didn’t send me heading for the exit the minute of the final fade-out is pretty remarkable. And maybe that’s due to director Richard Linklater and screenwriter/actor Mike White (The Good Girl) having more or less “gone Hollywood” with Rock, a feel-good, rock ‘n’ roll comedy that doesn’t wear its existentialism on its sleeve.
It also helps that this is clearly a movie made by people who genuinely know and love the songs they’re celebrating. A quick scan of the music credits reveals much. Sure, there’s no real surprise in finding Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” or Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” here, but a movie with a soundtrack that includes Marc Bolan’s “Ballrooms of Mars,” Pete Townshend’s “Substitute” and David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” suggests that it didn’t get that way by skimming through a bunch of greatest-hits packages. And that’s a really good thing, because — enjoyable though it may be — Rock boasts a plot and story development that can only be called predictable … and then only if you’re charitably minded.
It’s impossible to watch this film and not hear the pitch for it ringing in the background — “It’s like Dead Poets’ Society, but with rock musicians instead of poets, 10-year-olds instead of teens, and Jack Black instead of Robin Williams.” And in that respect, Rock can be said to be pitch-perfect; in the end, it feels too much like it adheres to a very rigid formula. You not only know what’s going to happen next, but you also know at exactly what moment things are going shift gears, with the film veering more and more toward becoming, if not exactly serious, then at least emotionally manipulative. What is surprising is how well this tack produces its desired effect. Or maybe it merely produces a simulation of that effect, since you’re too conscious of it for the emotionalism to really resonate.
Of course, the plot is pretty obvious to begin with — failed, over-aged, down-on-his-luck rocker Dewey Finn (Black) gets kicked out of his rock band because he’s become an embarrassment (which he really has). At that point, he decides to impersonate his best friend, Ned Schneebly (Mike White) — whose name he can’t even spell — and accept a long-term, substitute-teaching job at a prep school. But, uninterested in teaching or even being there, he forthrightly tells his charges that he has a hangover (“That means you’re drunk,” declares one kid. “No, that means I was drunk yesterday,” Dewey counters), snags half of a contraband turkey sub from a student and then proceeds to do nothing.
All this changes, though, when Dewey finds out that some of the kids have musical talent, whereupon he decides to turn them into his very own rock band and beat out his old group at the annual Battle of the Bands competition. What happens from here is everybody’s guess.
First of all, a classroom full of kids born in 1993 hasn’t a clue who most of the musicians are that Dewey reveres, so a crash course in rock history becomes essential (how this is done without even once mentioning The Beatles — can you say, “rights fees?” — is a little sketchy, but let’s not carp), as does a side trip into the “proper” rock attitude. The whole idea of rock as an instrument of revolution — a means to “stick it to the man” — isn’t bad here, and the filmmakers clearly believe in their mildly subversive message. However, it does raise an issue that White’s script simply opts to ignore: The central character is far from old enough to have been there at the time this music was new and this attitude was born, or even still thriving.
This would have been an interesting point for the script to build upon — that this music and what it means can span generations. Instead, Rock pretends there’s no actual discrepancy — probably because it would have made the film deviate from its careful formula.
In place of the depth that might have come from developing that idea, the film gives us Jack Black — and a lot of him. Your enjoyment of the results is going to entirely depend on your enjoyment of Jack Black.
I tend to like Black as an actor. He scored very high marks from me in Shallow Hal, and he was the only redeeming factor of Orange County. But School of Rock doesn’t give us Jack Black the actor — at least not all the time. What we typically get is Jack Black of the comedic rock group Tenacious D — and, in fact, a very sanitized version of that persona.
As a musician, Black exists in some weird limbo between rocker and parody, which sometimes works on its own merits. However, in Rock, it causes him to straddle an ungainly fence, between Jack Black the personality and Jack Black the actor. Either approach would have worked on its own, but the combination keeps pulling you out of the movie.
There are times when Linklater’s filmmaker eyes apparently glaze over and he lets his camera just sit there — or pull back in hyper-slow reverence — while Black does his Tenacious D shtick. Granted, the story line itself is no great shakes, but Linklater’s bouts with hands-off direction don’t improve matters, making it feel like there are two separate movies going on. Still, the overall results are not unpleasant, and sometimes — when it’s truly Black and White and Linklater all over — they’re both funny and moving.
So, at its best, Rock is pretty good. And at it’s worst, it’s not painful. What the ad campaign misses, however, is that it’s really a family film: Rock is almost scrupulously sexless and drugless, and even the drinking gags are minimal (you’ve seen them in the trailer). Yet in making it look edgier than it is, the ad campaign risks cutting out a sizable chunk of revenue, while also jeopardizing the film’s chances of being seen by the audience that would most appreciate it.
But everything to one side, I’ll consider Rock worthwhile if it sends even one 10-year-old out to buy Cream’s Disraeli Gears album!
– reviewed by Ken Hanke