School of Rock
directed by Richard Linklater
(Paramount, 2003)

It's kind of like combining the DNA of John Belushi and Jack Nicholson, and sending the result out into a classroom as the Pied Piper.

School of Rock unleashes Jack Black, sometime member of the band Tenacious D and general rock 'n' roll madman, in the role of Dewey Finn. Sure, it's just like his turn in High Fidelity as a music fan in serious need of some downtime, but Black does it so well and with such obvious joy, you can't begrudge him a moment of screen time.

Dewey's a musician with the passions of Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. Unfortunately, he doesn't have the talents of Jimmy Page or Angus Young. Kicked out of his band and scrounging to come up with the rent, Dewey assumes his roommate's identity and takes a substitute teaching job at a swanky prep school. He doesn't stand a chance when it comes to academic work, but when he hears the tremendously talented kids playing instruments in music class -- well, Dewey's little plan is hatched:

He's gonna form a new band, a better band -- a classroom band -- and win the local radio station's Battle of the Bands. And so begins the rock 'n' roll education for a bunch of kids who are far more familiar with Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo than they are with Johnny Rotten.

From here on, it's a pastiche of Dewey outwitting the school's wound-tighter-than-an-E-string principal, Rosalie Mullins (Joan Cusack), and giving his kids a flowchart of rock history, from the Ramones to Metallica, Lou Reed and Patti Smith to the Doors and Jimi Hendrix and back again.

But rock, of course, is a state of mind -- Dewey gives his fledgling rockers a little speech about "The Man" -- and School of Rock's quest to turn these classical musicians into rockers, with Dewey as their standard bearer, can be unbearably funny at times.

There is never a moment on screen when Black's not in motion, from his guitar-god posing to his Belushi eyebrows. And with this wildman as their tour guide into rock, the kids get pulled into the world of Pete Townshend windmilling and "the ancient technique" of guitar player power stance -- feet spread apart, arm "raising the goblet of rock" after the power chord, eyes wide, mouth open and head nodding "Yesssss!"

It's truly joyful mania, thanks to Black. He encompasses the screen in every scene with such a roar of energy and such obvious affection for his young charges (all of whom play their own instruments and many of whom come from strongly classical backgrounds) that there's a sweetness added to Black's usual joyfully rude humor.

Add in some insider humor, like the band manager who carries around the Guerrilla Music Marketing Handbook by Bob Baker, and Dewey's own sartorial tribute to Angus Young in the grand finale, and it's goofy, manic, rocking fun.

Director Richard Linklater (Dazed & Confused) and screenwriter Mike White (The Good Girl) -- who based this film on his real-life experience as Black's neighbor -- treat their audience as if they have some smarts and put the music on a pedestal, where it belongs.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 15 May 2004

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