Screens » Screens Etc.

BACK! IN BLACK!

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Jack Black schools fifth graders as substitute teacher Dewey Finn. (Courtesy photo)
'School of Rock,' appropriately enough, rocks

A decade ago, director Richard Linklater made a little movie about high school called Dazed and Confused. It was smart, tender, and funny, and refused to take the easy road with regard to nostalgia (it takes place in 1976) or the archetypes who inhabit classrooms, no matter the decade. Naturally, a confused movie studio decided to treat it as the retro equivalent of How High, and it didn't find the theatrical audience it deserved. Yet, since 1993, its continued popularity in video stores has established it as one of the classic movies about being young in America. Oh - and it rocked.

Now, Linklater goes back to school with Jack Black's Dewey Finn, a would-be rawk star who owes a lot to the Dazed generation. Zeppelin, AC/DC, and Black Sabbath course through his veins as he tries to stick it to the man in a Britney world. Dumped by his bandmates and way behind on the rent, Finn stumbles into a temporary gig as the substitute teacher for a class of fifth-grade overachievers.

SCHOOL OF ROCK
Dir. Richard Linklater; writ. Mike White; feat. Jack Black, Joan Cusack, Joey Gaydos, Maryam Hassan, Kevin Clark, Rebecca Brown, Robert Tsai, Miranda Cosgrove (PG-13)
This classroom might as well be on a different planet from the one where Slater and Randall "Pink" Floyd once ditched second period to smoke dope. Linklater and screenwriter Mike White depict an environment where overambitious parents pay to have their future doctors and lawyers walled off from the real world's corrupting influence. Dewey's initial attempts to let the kids entertain themselves fall flat - they don't know how to have fun when they're not supposed to, and they are concerned that their sub has no pop quizzes for them.

But the kids aren't robots. Dissatisfaction lurks within, and Finn soon finds a way to channel it into something creative, albeit something that is as much for his good as theirs. After discovering that his class harbors a few talented musicians, he plans to use them to win a battle of the bands contest for $20,000. But first he must teach them how to rock.

Anyone who has seen High Fidelity can guess how entertaining Black will be as a rock 'n' roll evangelist, and anyone familiar with Tenacious D knows how funny he is with a guitar strapped across his belly. Black flails and sneers, struts in rhythm, and imagines himself embraced by spotlights on a fog-covered stage. His eyebrows are independent life forms; when Finn first spies the kids playing their instruments, the brows roll in a sine wave over his intent eyes.

What Jack Black fans or detractors might not expect, especially given the lyrical content of Tenacious D's repertoire, is how innocent he is here, and how well his appeal survives the removal of four-letter words. It's hard to say where School of Rock's PG-13 rating comes from, because saying "kick some ass" is about as profane as it gets. In fact, Dewey Finn makes a point of explaining (in about the least preachy way possible) that rock isn't about scoring with chicks or getting high. Of course, what he says it is about - "sticking it to the man" - might not be the most comforting thing for uptight parents to hear; but that assertion at least puts Angus Young and Jimmy Page in the company of such respectable rebels as Martin Luther King Jr. and the founding fathers.

 
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Finn rocks out in short pants. (Courtesy photo)
As the kids come out of their shells, we get to see what Linklater is made of. It's hard to think of a mainstream movie about kids that has been more respectful of them or less willing to use them as button-pushing emotional devices. Rent a movie about a bottled-up kid who learns to enjoy life, and you will inevitably be subjected to a scene in which the child is shown alone, with swelling music accompanying his sadness, while others have fun. That scene doesn't exist here - the closest we get to that moment is a brief image of the school's tightly wound principal.

Instead, we see smart children learning to do things for themselves. It says a lot about Linklater's attitude toward his subjects that he insisted on hiring youngsters who could really play, rather than signing professional actors and letting musicians dub their parts. Surprisingly, only one of the band members (a backup singer) has ever made a movie before; each one of them gives a strong performance. Joey Gaydos, as the lead guitarist, has a particularly winning sequence in which he comes to class with his own song.

That scene is the turning point at which making music changes from a passive to an active project, and where it becomes clear that Black is just the movie's hook. The kids are the point, not because they're "the future," but because they're pretty fantastic right this minute. •


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