- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2003

In lesser hands, “School of Rock” would have been a middling mainstream comedy, cute but cloying and instantly forgettable.

By some miracle, it’s a near-perfect triumph, easily the funniest movie of the year.

In Richard Linklater, “School of Rock” has the respected indie director who gave us “Dazed and Confused.” Mike White, the screenwriter behind “The Good Girl” and “Chuck & Buck,” brings similar indie credibility.

Somehow, fate persuaded the pair to concoct a family-friendly comedy with a troupe of child actors playing fifth-grade prep-schoolers who are pressed into musical service by a pathetic would-be guitar rock god impersonating a substitute teacher.

On paper, “School of Rock” looks like “Dead Poets Society” meets “Spinal Tap” — an intriguing idea, but full of pitfalls.

Can the youngsters look convincing on their instruments? Will the whole thing turn out looking like an inauthentic after-school telepic?

Jim O’Rourke, of Sonic Youth fame, made sure the young talents were up to speed on their instruments; impressively, they play for real.

But “School of Rock” needed a ringleader, someone with the irrepressible energy to glue it all together. Only one man could have pulled off such a project: Jack Black.

Fortunately, he’s the star of the movie.

“School of Rock” was tailor-made for the pudgy comic actor who moonlights as a rock musician. In the last few years, Mr. Black’s career seemed stalled in the antechamber to stardom, but this movie, if the world is just, will make him a household name.

Mr. Black plays Dewey Finn, an underemployed, self-deluding musician who gets booted from his band for constantly reverting to the kind of rock-god antics that went out of style a generation ago — interminable guitar solos, grandiose theatricality, uncool pre-grunge enthusiasm.

Dejected, broke and with no employable skills, Dewey is reduced to sharing a cramped apartment with his old band mate, Ned Schneebly (Mr. White), a substitute teacher with a shrewish girlfriend (Sarah Silverman).

Desperate to make his next rent payment, Dewey takes a phone call meant for Ned; an elite prep school needs a teacher for a two-week stint, immediately. Dewey throws on his best, mismatched threads — a god-awful bow-tie, a cardigan and, for full preppy measure, a sweater-scarf — and reports for duty, masquerading as Ned.

On his first day, after a night of binge drinking, Dewey is in no mood to teach what he doesn’t know in the first place.

“Does anyone know what hangover means?” he asks his charges. “Yeah,” says one, “it means you’re drunk.”

“Noooo,” replies Dewey, “it means I was drunk yesterday.”

Funny, but averagely so.

But when Dewey learns that a few of his students are learning to play classical music, “School of Rock” shifts into overdrive. With a prying, uptight principal (Joan Cusack) suspiciously dogging him, Dewey secretly drills a handful of the preppies into a disciplined garage rock outfit.

His goal: to win a “Battle of the Bands” offering a sizable cash prize.

To whip the students into shape, Dewey teaches, for example, a classical guitarist (Joey Gaydos) how to windmill his arm like Pete Townshend. He assigns a virtuoso pianist (Robert Tsai) the Rick Wakeman solo in Yes’ “Roundabout” for homework.

The ones who can’t play instruments are assigned useful tasks such as security staff and “groupie” — a very important job, Dewey says; they’re responsible for selling T-shirts and collecting money at the door.

The movie is cleverly layered with little ironies such as the fact that classic rock is as exotic to these youngsters as classical music — even more so, in fact.

But it’s Mr. Black’s mixture of pinpoint parody and idolatrous celebration — of putting rock music on a pedestal, only to knock it down in satire — that transforms a formulaic story into an inspired and original comic success.

To watch these youngsters discover the joy of jamming to Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” in a beat-up old van and to watch Mr. Black lead them in a prayer to the “gods of rock” is to be reminded that no American education is complete without at least one headbanging semester in the “School of Rock.”


TITLE: “School of Rock”

RATING: PG-13 (Some crude humor and drug references)

CREDITS: Directed by Richard Linklater. Produced by Scott Rudin. Written by Mike White. Photography directed by Rogier Stoffers. Music score by Craig Wedren. Music supervised by Randall Poster.

RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes.


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