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With: Jack Black, Joan Cusack, Mike White, Sarah Silverman
Written by: Mike White
Directed by: Richard Linklater
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some rude humor and drug references
Running Time: 108
Date: 09/09/2003

School of Rock (2003)

3 Stars (out of 4)

'Rock' Steady

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Since the beginning of movies, artists have learned the technique of making "one for myself" and "one for them" in order to survive. That is, they make a personal, uncommercial movie that satisfies soulful yearnings, then turn around and make a brain-dead commercial film that will play on 3000 screens.

Since Richard Linklater made two personal films in 2001, Waking Life and Tape, he was due to make "one for them." Fortunately, he's so smart and has such a sure touch that he was able to take the otherwise formula School of Rock and make it into something worth seeing.

In the film, Jack Black plays Dewey Finn, a pushing-30 slacker who can't let go of his rock 'n' roll dreams even when his best friend Ned Schneebly (Mike White, who also scripted) has begun settling down into a normal corporate routine -- including a shrill girlfriend (Sarah Silverman) whose sole purpose is to shriek at Dewey.

Desperate for rent money, Dewey takes a phone call intended for Ned and lands a substitute teacher gig. He quickly learns that the ten year-old students are taking music courses and learning (gasp) boring classical music.

So Dewey cooks up a fictional band competition and begins training the students as rock musicians, using his own AOR-based taste as the yardstick.

Normally, the point of a movie like this is to show the directionless slob learning a life lesson from the students, and the students in turn learning not to be so darn uptight. But Linklater softens that part of the script and concentrates on individual moments -- his area of expertise. Linklater is incapable of cutting away from a decent conversation any more than Michael Bay would cut away from an explosion.

To that end, Linklater ignores obvious plotholes -- like the fact that none of the faculty at this opulent school ever notices the constant noise coming from the classroom -- and tries to get inside. He captures little moments of creation, and the thrill one gets from having created a piece of music.

School of Rock also gets close to the feverish worship that certain rock bands inspire and that Black so aptly conveyed in his memorable High Fidelity (2000) role. Black cuts loose, jumping around like a spastic team mascot, when he hears the students copying riffs from beloved songs.

Indeed, Black is the other reason School of Rock works so well. As a member of Tenacious D, Black has mastered playing and clowning at the same time. He simultaneously appreciates and ridicules music like Lynyrd Skynyrd, tapping into the primal appeal of "pop" music.

Of course, it's not as simple as "playing himself," and Black handles the non-musical moments with equal enthusiasm, such as when Dewey must convince the school's strict principal (Joan Cusack) to let him take the band on a field trip.

School of Rock predictably winds up with a "battle of the bands," and the outcome isn't too difficult to guess. But it's hard not to be moved by Black and the children's energetic performance.

Even better is an improvised closing scene in which Dewey has opened his own rock 'n' roll school, tutoring the children with an extended riff on AC/DC's "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock 'n' Roll)."

That song was also used in the lame Garage Days, a self-conscious rock movie that barely even contained any music. But Linklater, who already made a great quasi-rock movie with 1993's Dazed and Confused, knows his rock 'n' roll. School of Rock contains great cuts from the Ramones, T. Rex, the Modern Lovers and other bands that deserve to not fade away. They remind us that School of Rock has managed to present itself in the finest tradition of rock movies: fast, simple, loud and fun.

Paramount's DVD release comes with lots of good stuff: two commentary tracks, one by Black and Linklater (White apparently had the flu), and one by the kids (who mostly laugh and copy their line readings). There are two video diaries, one with the kids at the Toronto Film Festival, and the other with Black on MTV. Other extras include Black's pitch to get Led Zeppelin to let them use "The Immigrant Song" in the film (which they did), trailers, videos, a preview for this summer's The Stepford Wives and other stuff. DVD-Rom features are only compatible on IBM computers.

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