July 12, 2009

CDtZ: School of Rock (2003)

[Note: This is a submission for Counting Down the Zeroes, a brilliant, year-long project headed up by Film for the Soul's ambitious chief, Ibetolis. By the end of this year it will exist as a comprehensive collection of the best movies of the decade (2000's). My first submission was Boiler Room (2000), and I look forward to taking on more in the upcoming months. Check it out!]

Jack Black just has one of those faces, doesn't he? The kind that you see once and never forget, that can exhibit every range of human emotion, and that can believably slip into any supporting role in any genre of movie - Demolition Man, Waterworld, The Neverending Story III, Dead Man Walking, The Cable Guy, Enemy of the State, High Fidelity, Saving Silverman, Orange County. This fact shouldn't be a surprise, but yet it is: Jack Black had a solid 50 acting roles under his belt before his career-making turn as Dewey Finn in School of Rock.

Prior to Richard Linklater's sleeper smash hit, Black's biggest starring turn had been opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in the underrated Farrelly Brothers rom-com Shallow Hal, where he demonstrated for the first time that he could play the straight guy for a whole movie, without even one air-guitar foray or memorably wacky scene. Ironically, it was probably during this time in Black's life (the early 2000's) that he lived in the same apartment building as Mike White, who wrote Orange County and was inspired to write School of Rock after frequently witnessing Black blast classic rock music and run through the halls naked.

High Fidelity director Stephen Frears was originally tapped to direct, but the job ultimately went to Linklater, who had the slacker movie cred (Slacker, Dazed and Confused) but had never made a film as "kid-friendly" as School of Rock (he would go on to make a poorly received Bad News Bears remake two years later). The film opened in the U.S. on October 3, 2003, less than a month after its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

I remember seeing it with a friend on opening weekend at Universal City in L.A., then a few weeks later again with friends in San Diego, and then a few weeks later again with my brother and sister in Minnesota (ah, the Roseville 4). A crowd-pleaser that never tired, School of Rock was the first movie I saw three times in the theater since Jurassic Park a decade earlier. Maybe in part thanks to my efforts, School of Rock remained in theaters for almost 6 months, grossing more than $80 million on an estimated budget of only $35 million. In the Chicago Tribune, Mark Caro perfectly summed it up: "The movie is the cinematic equivalent of a near-perfect three-minute pop song. It makes you laugh, smile and tap your toes over a brisk 88 minutes, and when it's finished, you're ready to hit repeat."

What makes this movie so enjoyable through repeated viewings? It's hard to narrow it down to just one or two aspects, but each time I see it the answer becomes more clear: Jack Black's performance and Mike White's screenplay. Without either of these two elements, the movie would suffer considerably, despite the sure-handed direction of Linklater and some great performances from the kids, Joan Cusack, and even Mike White himself as Jack Black's roommate.

When we see Black (or more likely a stunt man) take a stage dive onto an empty floor during the opening credits, we get a pretty good idea of the kind of energetic comedy in store for us. As Dewey Finn, Black fully commits to the role of a sensitive slacker with a passion for music so pure that it overshadows otherwise sacred values (until he discovers the students' musical talent, he's happy enough to completely waste their educational time). In his 3 1/2-star review, Roger Ebert observed, "Jack Black remains true to his irascible character all the way through; he makes Dewey's personality not a plot gimmick, but a way of life."

Of course, it would be hard for anyone not to have fun playing Dewey Finn, a wannabe rock star who doesn't play by any of the conventional rules of life. But Black doesn't overdo it; we actually believe that, despite his own selfish interests in winning the "Battle of the Bands", Dewey really does care about the students' wellbeing. In fact, as he grows closer to them it becomes clear that Linklater is making something resembling a Disney movie, complete with positive lessons, family values, and a heroic, sappy ending. Ebert, again: "Here is a movie that proves you can make a family film that's alive and well-acted and smart and perceptive and funny -- and that rocks."

In other words, as vital as Black's balanced energy is to the success of School of Rock, the material he is working from cannot be overlooked. Mike White's stories were a bit hit-and-miss to that point (Dead Man on Campus, The Good Girl, Orange County), but as Ebert described it, "White's movies lovingly celebrate the comic peculiarities of everyday people", and School of Rock remains both the funniest and most endearing screenplay of his career (the upcoming School of Rock 2 has potential to replace it, but I'm skeptical). Praising the film for Newsweek, David Ansen wondered, "It's a bravura, all-stops-out, inexhaustibly inventive performance. I don't know how much was improvised, and how much comes from White's sharp screenplay, but Black may never again get a part that displays his mad-dog comic ferocity to such brilliant effect."

Unfortunately, Ansen has so far been right on the mark. Black has been given steady work in the past six years, but while much of it has been significant (opposite Kate Winslet in The Holiday, under the direction of Michel Gondry in Be Kind Rewind, and in the star-studded cast of Tropic Thunder), the role that's perhaps best fit his talents was as the voice of Po in last year's animated hit Kung Fu Panda. I'm not proposing an actual theory here, but it might be worth noting that both Kung Fu Panda and School of Rock are essentially kid's movies - maybe Black is best suited for roles that are more obviously juvenile? Food for thought to go along with a last bit of trivia: School of Rock (which was originally The School of Rock) was shockingly given a PG-13 rating due to "rude humor and some drug references", whatever that means. Lamenting the situation, Ebert offered a parting shot: "There's not a kid alive who would be anything but delighted by this film."

And finally, while I don't mean to diminish the work of Linklater at the helm here, for the most part it appears he took a hands-off approach and simply let Black run wild with his young co-stars. It worked beautifully and in the hands of another director this movie could have been bogged down with all kinds of unnecessary "stuff". There is one scene that displays Linklater's casually perfect directing chops, however, and it's the thrilling, emotionally moving finale (or, as Lou Lumenick admitted in the New York Post, "an inspirational climax that's as rousing as it is predictable."). Enjoy:


  1. That's great news that you have joined the project Dan. I was kinda hoping to see some stuff up there from you. THE SCHOOL OF ROCK, eh? Well, I wasn't a big fan upon first viewing, but it's one of those films that grew on me, in large measure because my wife asnd kids adore it, and played it in the house here on DVD many many times. I think you may have hit upon the reason for Black's prime appeal or the audience he most hits the bulls-eye with: the youth. Your mentioning of his voice work in KUNG FU PANDA is a prime example. I also agree that it's less a work from director Linklater than it is from Black and the screenwriter. The dialogue is after all what carries this along.

    Well Dan, it looks like I am hardlythe only one who sees films over and over! LOL! Great work her for your sophomore project post!

  2. Thanks a lot, Sam. I fell for this one a lot faster than you did, but I'm not surprised you warmed to it after a few times (and I love that your family loves it!). Even those who dislike Jack Black will have a hard time not being charmed by him here.

    This is a great project to be involved with, since you mention it. It's been really shocking to me to be reminded of some of the excellent movies that have come out in this decade. A lot of the ones from these early years (2000-2003) had begun to fade in my mind.


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