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Class project
High grades School of Rock
School of Rock
Directed by Richard Linklater. Written by Mike White. With Jack Black, Joan Cusack, Mike White, Sarah Silverman, Joey Gaydos Jr., Maryam Hassan, Kevin Clark, Rebecca Brown, Robert Tsai, Caitlin Hale, Aleisha Allen, and Miranda Cosgrove. A Paramount Pictures release. 108 minutes. At the Boston Common, the Fresh Pond, and the Circle and in the suburbs.

The schoolroom is a microcosm of an oppressive society, which is why it works so well as a film setting. Films like Zero for Conduct, If . . . , Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, to name just a few, remind viewers of their first experience of getting squashed by the system and of the vain dream of fighting back. Fighting back has ceased to be fashionable in these post-Columbine days of security cameras, metal detectors, and bowdlerized textbooks, and being squashed is all the rage, which makes Richard Linklater’s accomplishment in School of Rock all the more remarkable. It’s a subversive film that affirms family values, a feel-good flick that doesn’t make you ashamed to feel that way.

Remarkable, yes, but also implausible. The basic premise — slacker musician Dewey Finn (Jack Black) pretends to be a teacher and forges his 10-year-old students into a rock band — wouldn’t get past the armed guard at the shabbiest inner-city public school, let alone the venerable walls of tony Horace Green Elementary, the finest in the state, as Principal Mullins (Joan Cusack) proudly points out, and no doubt the most expensive. But apparently not the most alert, as Dewey takes on his roommate Ned Schneebly’s (Mike White) identity as a certified sub, puts on a bow tie and battered jacket, and tells the uniformed sixth-graders under his charge to take a perpetual recess.

Perhaps Mullins falls for Dewey’s bull for the same reason the audience does — sheer delight in Black’s manic exuberance, vanity, self-delusion, and absurdity. He should win most viewers over in the film’s opening minutes as he takes a guitar solo for his band and stage dives into the waiting arms of — nobody. That pratfall can’t shatter his illusions of being a rock god, however, nor is he daunted when his own band cans him for his showboating. These setbacks only intensify his bitterness and determination, his conviction that it’s not his lack of talent that’s holding him back, but the machinations of "the Man."

"The Man," the faceless authority who frustrates or exploits all desires, is the topic of his first lesson, delivered when his offer of recess is declined ("I have a hangover," he says. "Does anybody know what that is?"). Now in the position of "the Man" himself, Dewey doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of those under his control. Noting their talent when he overhears them playing during a music class, he schemes to turn them into a new band that he can take to an upcoming contest offering a big cash prize.

But to paraphrase David St. Hubbins, there’s a fine line between cynicism and idealism. To convince the class that the "project" is worthwhile or possible, Dewey must shake them out of their repressed, bourgeois shells (and generic stereotypes) to find the rockers within. He does this partly through a curriculum of pre-MTV music heavy on the Led Zeppelin side of the spectrum, with videos of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Keith Moon, and the like in action — a kind of Dead Rockers Society.

Mostly, though, he teaches by example, usually negative: he performs an autobiographical tune that combines Jethro Tull-like mythmaking with his petulant anger at his treacherous former bandmates and his resentment at paying rent and that rivals the tiny monolith moment in This is Spinal Tap for its celebration of deflated delusions of grandeur.

So Dewey learns something about responsibility, and his kids — all precisely cast and utterly convincing — learn something about freedom, and no one should be unmoved by the film’s rousing finale (on a par with that of 8 Mile, though rated PG-13). True, School falls briefly victim to the unfortunate rock tradition of misogyny; Schneebly’s girlfriend, Patty (Sarah Silverman), is an irredeemable and humorless shrew. Luckily, Cusack’s performance as Mullins more than compensates for that lapse: her transformation upon hearing Stevie Nicks’s "Edge of Seventeen" on a jukebox is heartwarming and hilarious.

As for Linklater’s direction, his contribution is simplicity and compassionate detachment, an uncluttered style that allows the performers — from the ubiquitous Black to the shyest youngster — to share the spotlight. And Linklater possesses the rare gift of irony without condescension. I don’t know how he manages to cut from Dewey’s line "I want no late nights drinking tequila and trying to get lucky" to a shot of the kids’ earnest faces without being coy or smug, but the laugh is as innocent as the kids themselves. Let’s hope Hollywood finds it a learning experience.

Issue Date: October 3 - 9, 2003
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