WFTB Score: 14/20
The plot: Broke, single-minded guitarist Dewey Finn hits rock bottom when he’s chucked out of his own band and his ineffectual friend Ned Schneebly threatens him with eviction. In desperation, Dewey takes a supply teaching job by passing himself off as Ned, and makes the discovery that not only are the children in his class bright, they could just be the key he needs to gain his ultimate revenge – by winning the ‘Battle of the Bands’.
There are no absolute truths in filmmaking, but some statements are truer than others. For example, the maxim ‘a little Jack Black goes a long way’ is universally acknowledged, whilst the same cannot be said for the phrase ‘the more kids in a movie, the better.’ Does a film with lots of Jack Black and lots of kids honestly stand a chance?
School of Rock finds Mr Black as energetic, idealistic rock showman Dewey Finn, a guitarist with little more to show for his life than a decent amount of kit and an extreme worship of all things rock. When Dewey’s antics become too much for the other members of his band, he’s kicked out; worse, his inability to pay bills becomes too much for his flatmate and former bandmate Ned (Mike White), or rather Ned’s nagging girlfriend Patty (Sarah Silverman).
On the verge of selling his precious Gibson guitar, Dewey takes a phone call for Ned offering him a supply teaching position and takes the gig himself, passing himself off as Ned to the school’s uptight principal Rosalie Mullins (Joan Cusack). Although the kids are initially disgruntled at having their routine interrupted by a disinterested slob, when ‘Ned’ hears them playing music he hits on the idea of training them up to take part in the Battle of the Bands for a prize of $20,000 and (more importantly) revenge on his old band. The children, whilst talented, know nothing about rock; so a crash course in rock music history and attitude begins, together with top-secret practice sessions.
You don’t have to have seen too many no-hopers-made-good comedies (Cool Runnings comes instantly to mind) to know what happens next: of course Ros and the children’s non-rocking parents put obstacles in Dewey’s way, and of course the kids make sure the show goes ahead when all seems lost; but the story (written by Mike White after experiencing life near Black) is really the minor part of the film’s charm. Jack Black puts in such an overblown, cartoonish performance as the fake Ned that he instantly sets the mood of the film as a larger-than-life romp, and although his wide-eyed exhortations to the children, bare-faced lies to his colleagues and outlandish rock stylings are obviously the main attractions, he is well matched by similarly stereotyped performances from White and Cusack, who is excellent as repressed Ros (though she can be loosened up by beer and Stevie Nicks!); though Black’s attitude opens her eyes a little, the script wisely avoids foisting an unlikely relationship upon them. Unfortunately, Silverman’s character is little more than a sarcastic harpy, and while she fits in with the basic characterisations around her, she’s a panto villain and an easy target.
And then there are the children. On paper, a film about a class of precocious music-making kids sounds like a nightmare, but the film is clever enough to make them rather reluctant prodigies who knuckle down to the task rather than attempt to show off – though it has to be emphasised that the children do play their instruments and sing, and are very good at it too (Kevin Alexander Clark on the drums is excellent). Even the most potentially annoying part, Miranda Cosgrove’s band manager Summer, is handled with a light touch as she suggests the band feign a rare disease (“Stickittodemaniosis”) to secure their place at the concert. The kids’ relationship with Black is convincing and cute without ever being sickly, and indeed the potential for the situation to be misread is exploited (‘I’ve been touched by your kids…’ says ‘Ned’ at a parents’ evening). Furthermore, School of Rock knows its stuff: it does what it says on the tin and introduces both the children and the viewer to tracks by AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, The Who and so on, recognising that rock music is a point where composing genius and rank absurdity regularly meet.
If you really don’t like Jack Black’s shtick, rock music or child actors, you’re not really going to have a good time with School of Rock, but Jack is in his absolute element here and delivers a performance of immense energy and affability which never descends into anything soft or mawkish. There are no lessons learnt, no explicit moralising, and the super-happy ending that almost everyone gets feels deserved. Personally, I think Richard Linklater’s film is a minor classic that can be enjoyed by interested parties of all ages, and for that I salute him.