Reading, Writing, and Rocking

In School of Rock, Jack Black helps kids find their inner headbanger.

What stars Black and White and rocks all over?

The new comedy School of Rock (Paramount) is uncut bliss: It had me buzzing, bopping up and down in my seat, practically pogoing out of the theater playing air guitar. I scribbled superlatives in my notebook; I heard myself tell a colleague, “Dude, that movie rocked.” I wonder, now that the ecstasy has dissipated a bit (but only a bit), how a formulaic farce-heart-warmer about a fake teacher and a bunch of 10-year-olds could be such a mystical experience—one of the biggest highs I’ve had at the movies in years.

It must be the confluence of three weird but mighty forces: writer Mike White of Chuck & Buck (2000) and The Good Girl (2002); director Richard Linklater, of Dazed and Confused (1993) and Before Sunrise (1995); and actor Jack Black, of High Fidelity (2000) and Shallow Hal (2001). They’re polished craftsmen all, yet each, in a different ways, on intimate terms with his inner child—especially his naughty inner child, the kind who’d make a movie with a montage of frolicking kids set to the Ramones’ “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg.”

Black plays Dewey Finn, an unemployed slacker who lives for hard-core rock ’n’ roll (“I serve society by rocking!”) but can’t get others to share his dream. In the first scene, on stage with his band, he’s carried away by the emotion of the music: He finishes a number and then leaps into the arms of the crowd—except the crowd gets the hell out of his way (he’s a big guy) and he lands on his face, hard. After this disaster, his fellow musicians finally give him the heave-ho, and his milquetoast roommate, Ned Schneebly (Mike White), a substitute teacher, threatens to evict him by order of his bossy girlfriend (Sarah Silverman). That’s when Dewey takes a phone call meant for his roommate from a posh private academy called Horace Green and, for $650 a week, decides to pass himself off as an elementary-school teacher.

At first, Dewey doesn’t rise to the occasion: He tells the kids to shut up and go to recess. Then he wanders by a music class and realizes, with a start, that he’s found his back-up band for an upcoming Battle of the Bands competition he’s desperate to enter. School of Rock is about how Dewey takes these unformed 10-year-olds and makes them hard-core—that is, hard-core minus the drugs and sex and self-abuse. He goads and exhorts them, drills them in the history of metal and punk, and passionately affirms their coolness. As he teaches them to “stick it to the man,” you realize you’re watching something miraculous: a joyous, uplifting, go-for-it family picture that takes you back to the primal rock ’n’ roll impulse, with its Dionysian rage.

The impish Black, who in real life has own his own tongue-in-cheek band, Tenacious D, is right on the line between mocker and rocker: With those leering, asymmetrical eyebrows, he poised to parody (“Raise the goblet of rock!”), yet he is transfigured, as he sings, into a heavy-metal messiah. This is a barnstorming performance, as wry as Bill Murray’s in Meatballs (1979), but without the protective irony: He knows he’s reaching out to a panoply of younger, awkward selves. The school kids are all types: nerdy, cool, bossy, fat, gay. But they have no sitcom glibness. As they work through their numbers, they seem to be finding their inner Deweys.

If you’ve heard Jack Black being interviewed, you know that despite his outrageous onscreen persona he isn’t a blowhard; in real life, he’s painfully tentative. And part of what’s so touching about School of Rock is that it’s clearly from the work of shy people: It’s a rock-’n’-roll anthem for the timid. It’s about kids—and grown-ups—who need to rev themselves up to transcend their own self-doubt. Rock—or dreaming about rock—is how they get out of themselves and connect with the cosmic oneness.

School of Rock is totally formulaic: There are stuffy killjoy parents and a stuck-up stick insect of a principal—even though she’s played with delicious fidgety self-consciousness by Joan Cusack. You’ve seen this Battle of the Bands climax a thousand times. But there are rare formula pictures—the bicycle movie Breaking Away (1979) was another—that seem to be arriving at the formula from the inside, with a kind of naive hopefulness that seems as much a product of movie-love as it is of a desire to reach a mass audience. For all its slickness, School of Rock has a let’s-put-on-a-show quality that touches you in the most direct way a movie can. It’s as if the filmmakers had said, “I’d like to teach the world to kick butt—in perfect harmony.”