There is a scene near the middle of School Of Rock (2004) where Dewey (Jack Black) arrives for a parent’s evening at the public school where he has been teaching; from his bashed and smoking Dodge van we can see the parents’ cars parked in the school drive, and they’re all Volvos. The moment is not played for laughs or highlighted in any way and is so fleeting it almost goes unnoticed, yet this is exactly the kind of subtlety and economy that fills the film, when it’s not busy rockin’ us to the tune of Hendrix or Led Zeppelin. The new comedy from director Richard Linklater is a movie that achieves a rare thing: it treats the kids in the audience just the same as the adults.
Jack Black is Dewey Finn, a down-on-his-luck rocker who sleeps in the corner of his best friend, substitute teacher Ned’s apartment. When faced with paying the rent or getting out, Dewey accepts a temporary teaching post at the state’s best public school. After hearing his new class’s drab weekly music lesson Dewey decides to start his own rock music course. As the kids begin to discover new skills in electric guitar, drums and singing harmony, Dewey reckons he can form a new band and maybe enter the Battle of the Bands contest at the end of the month.
Jack Black has struggled to repeat the success he enjoyed playing music man Barry in Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity (2000). While it was only a supporting role he was cast perfectly, the part drawing on Black’s musical background to great effect. 2001’s Orange County was uninspired and really only served as a vehicle for Tom Hanks’ son Colin. The Farrelly Brothers’ Shallow Hal (2002) showed more of Black’s flamboyant comic flair but it felt like another sample of the wrong material for the front man of Tenacious D. Two years later, it seems that School of Rock may finally be the film to promote Black’s irreverent brand of humour, while giving him the chance to really stretch his acting ability.
After his slew of supporting characters in previous years, it can be confidently said that this is a Jack Black Movie. From the well developed comic timing and verbal jabs to his obvious love and passion for rock music, Black excels in holding his own against a classroom of child actors, as well as a wonderfully uptight Joan Cusack as the school’s headmistress. Whether he’s reciting lines to Pink Floyd or kicking over school chairs in true rock fashion, Black totally convinces as the inspiring, Nirvana-educating revolutionary. That the film also presents rock music history as serious stuff means Black’s performance is all the more credible.
The film itself sticks closely to the well-worn but reliable formula that made the likes of Dead Poet’s Society (1989) so memorable (‘free-spirited individual takes on stuffy, rigid school and succeeds in enlightening everyone’). Yet School Of Rock earns extra points because it avoids patronising the audience and manages to portray kids who are smart and confident people. Granted it may have some underdeveloped characters – Mike White’s Ned could have been used to better effect, as could the typical snotty parents who fail to truly appreciate their children – but in a film of such comic entusiasm it seems a little pointless to focus on these shortcomings.
With Julia Roberts starring as another iconoclastic teacher in this year’s Mona Lisa Smile (2004) it seems like the school movie may be back in vogue. From the look of its predictable trailer, Mike Newell’s latest offering will only make School Of Rock appear all the more fresh and intelligent.