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Tuesday, February 15, 2011



Starring: Jack Black, Joan Cusack and Miranda Cosgrove
Written By: Mike White
Directed By: Richard Linklater

When you watch it too thoughtfully, School of Rock becomes kind of a disconcerting film. The school’s security is so lax it doesn’t check for ID and a complete stranger is left alone with roughly twenty primary school children. From that starting point, you’re left with either an episode of Criminal Minds or a heartwarming comedy that wears its love of rock music on its sleeve. Fortunately, director Richard Linklater delivers the latter.

Featuring Jack Black’s best ever lead performance (no contest) and a horde of adorable child actors, School of Rock tells the story of Dewey Finn, a slacker who opens the film by getting kicked out of his rock band for ‘rocking’ too hard. Under pressure from the girlfriend (Sarah Silverman) of his roommate Ned Schneebly (Mike White), he takes advantage of a case of mistaken identity to take a job as a substitute teacher at an upper-class prep school. When he discovers the students have some talent in the music department, he hijacks the class in order to create his own rock band.

One word most aptly describes the appeal of School of Rock – watchable. It’s an incredibly easygoing, warm, funny film with fantastic music, great jokes and an appealing lead performance. But there are plenty of films that fit that description, so why does School of Rock hold such a special place in my film pantheon? Let me describe the ways.

The music is awesome and totally in my wheelhouse. The soundtrack features Led Zeppelin, ACDC and all the greats and it infuses the film with an energy scene to scene that some films could only dream of. It’s borderline impossible not to get pumped up when Back in Black starts thundering over a scene transition. I’m pretty sure ACDC was responsible for at least some of the success of ‘Iron Man’.

The kids are fantastic. They played all their own instruments – and it becomes clear that the casting agents picked kids who could play/sing first and act second throughout the movie – but it gives the film the authenticity it needed for us to really back these kids in. It also means we believe it when the band puts in an awesome performance. Some of their problems are clichéd but universal enough to warrant it – and Miranda Cosgrove is very good as Summer. Like Jack Black, she shines through her characters most annoying trait (she’s an overachiever, he’s the opposite) to find the likeable character within.

You know that part of ‘The Blues Brothers’ where the boys actually ‘get the band back together’? This plays like the pre-teen version of that, except the band is getting together for the first time. The scene where Black first puts the basics of the School of Rock together by adapting their skills with the cello or the piano is a joy to watch every time. There’s something to be said for a film that is just so much damn fun.

I enjoy the little moments about the teachers and especially Joan Cusack’s tightly wound Principal Mullins, and the scene where she channels Stevie Nicks. The whole central conceit of the film – rock (and music in general) has the power to set you free – is consistently and beautifully executed throughout the film. It’s not a new message, or a complex one, but never has that message been so much fun to hear.

Similarly, this will not be my deepest, or most complex piece. School of Rock is pure and simple, a beautiful little paean to rock music that’s one the most continually entertaining films you’re ever likely to come across.

Some other thoughts:

-                School of Rock was written by Mike White, who also plays the wonderfully pathetic Ned Schneebly. White is quietly one of the better writers going around in Hollywood – he has episodes of the great, much-missed Freaks and Geeks to his name, as well as Orange County and The Good Girl. I would say School of Rock is still his finest achievement. His girlfriend is played by the soon-to-be-much-more-famous Sarah Silverman. She’s the film’s weakest character – she just comes off as a one-dimensional annoying girlfriend.
-                The musical montage is sweet – as is the final performance by the band.
-                The scene late in the film that addresses the slightly worrying and controversial elements of the story needed to be there for all of us that were wondering exactly when this random man would be stopped from teaching a bunch of vulnerable children – but including it also shines a spotlight on the various plot holes the script exploits. But who cares, it’s a comedy! Sit back and enjoy.
-                I really like the varied career Richard Linklater has had. Not all of his films work but a man who can direct the sweetly affecting Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Me and Orson Welles and A Scanner Darkly is a versatile man indeed.
-                Billy, the fey student who ends up designing the band’s costumes, might seem like a caricature but, uh, in my drama classes I’ve taught kids like that. Exactly like that.
-                I haven’t said much about Jack Black, because he’s just Jack Black, but his love of the music does shine through in this film. What’s more, it shows how great a presence Jack Black can be if the script plays to his strengths, rather than relying on what casting directors have misappropriated as ‘comedy star’ charm.

School of Rock is a film I love and it’s the number 19 on my list of my top 20 favourite films of all time.

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