School of Rock is Squaresville

ZepI’m sure all aging rock fans have their own feelings about their relationship to the art form (which was frickin invented in some of our lifetimes). There’s something undeniably magical, forceful, and yeah, rebellious, about that moment when you snap on your amp and your guitar becomes an instrument of assertive, potentially deafening noise. It’s powerful. It does seem to kick out the jams, obliterate any stuffiness, shove propriety and politesse down authority figures’ throats.


But if you’re over a certain age, the magic inevitably wanes. You begin to wonder if there might be a more interesting way to spend your evening than killing hours of time in grubby rock clubs, even when that time allows you to eventually catch one transcendent set from a fantastic band. It’s tiring, and the crappy bathrooms are a drag. The whole thing becomes a question of generational experience after a while.

Still, when someone makes a movie starring the demonic-eyed yet puppyish Jack Black that’s about an aging slacker’s devotion to 70s/80s rock, and that someone is Richard Linklater who made the lyrical Before Sunrise and the smart, unsentimental Dazed and Confused, you don’t walk, you run, to see it! Because you know that since Jack Black is a real rocker (leader of the band Tenacious D) who has already shown a lovable mania for the genre, and Linklater has shown a feeling for teen excess, and Black is playing a substitute teacher who turns his students into rockers – okay, it’s bound to have some corny elements, but it just has to be good, right?

It isn’t. Overall, School of Rock is silly, weakly conceived and about as timely as the strains of Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy we hear on the soundtrack, or the Angus Young uniform Jack Black sports in the film’s climax.

What’s believable in the film and gives it most of its heart is Black’s performance as Dewey Finn, an overgrown rock fanatic who can’t give up the dream. If the filmmakers were more realistic about what it means for a mid-30s adult to be passionately in love with old-fashioned, 70s/80s-style, guitar-driven stadium rock, School of Rock might be a much funnier movie. But the script (by Chuck and Buck‘s writer/star Mike White) is too soft toward Dewey and his stunned indifference to everything except rock music. They want us to see him as a hero, and the other teachers at the school where he goes to substitute as weak-minded compared to him (they laugh heartily at his hackneyed jokes).

Behind Linklater’s and White’s vision of this movie is an outdated 60s nonconformist dream based on famous rebels like Jack Nicholson’s lawyer in Easy Rider and, well, most of Jack Nicholson’s other characters from the 60s and 70s. But that romanticism makes the film seriously out of touch. A group of outraged parents shows up at the school to find out why the new substitute teacher is teaching nothing but music, and though these parents are a little young to have been formed in the crucible of classic rock, the truth is they are far more likely to be into it than their kids are. The fact is, this stuff is over. A love of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath doesn’t spell rebellion in any corner of the globe that I know of. So when Dewey manifests outrage that his little students have never heard of Zeppelin, it makes you want to yawn, not laugh. It’s hard for people my age to still find old-school rock inspiring – so what is a movie doing asking little kids to care about it?

There are great touches in the film – the cinematography is dead-on, picking up decaying band posters plastered on the walls of practice spaces and rock clubs, and unmercifully highlighting the slovenly mess Dewey lives in (in the name of rock and roll) but there are too many false notes. Early on, a broke Dewey actually poses as his best friend (the eternally submissive Mike White) and takes work in his name, but nothing is made of that slimy act, just as nothing is made of Dewey’s utter indifference to the plight of his well-brought-up charges in the exclusive private school where he’s substitute-teaching. One of the first things Black does is cadge a half-sandwich off a kid in his class. I know they’re supposed to be rich kids, and Dewey is hungry and immature, not to mention poor, but the theft of the sandwich seems arrogant and clueless, not cool. Another moment that jarred was when Dewey is assigning the students roles in the band, and a trio of “classic misfits” – a fat redhead, an undersized black boy and a tech-nerd – asks what they can do. It’s a squirm-inducing moment when Dewey appoints them head of security – custodial roles. Way to empower them.

The movie asks us to accept Dewey’s apathy toward everything except rock music as interesting and even inspiring. It isn’t either of those things – what it is is funny, and in the more finely tuned moments, Black brings the ridiculousness to a great peak. At one point he turns his glittering dark eyes on his class of 10-year-olds and makes them pledge allegiance to the class rock band: “And I swear that I will never try to take creative control or pull power plays.” Since the opening scenes show Black getting kicked out of his band for being too self-indulgent on the guitar, his own shameless wielding of power over a bunch of captive grade-school kids is hilarious.

But the film makes a mistake by trying to show the kids’ orderly routines as having coopted and deadened them. They’re students at a school that gives every sign of trying to actually educate its charges (unlike most mausoleums kids are stuck in these days). The students are well-behaved and motivated, but we’re cued to see them as lifeless. We see them in music class, showing care and skill as they play a classical piece, but the scene is shot from Dewey’s point of view and we’re meant to think they need to be liberated from this joyless squareness. It’s cheap to hierarchize music like this – is a kid necessarily less of an individual because he finds joy in classical piano rather than rock?

To its credit, the screenplay does show Dewey snapping into engagement as he works with the musical talents of his students. And it’s fun to see them mastering the new genre, even if you keep remembering how competent and fulfilled they already seemed as classical players. The studious guitar player who needs to learn to “feel it” seems convincingly repressed, and Dewey’s exhortations to him to play with genuine passion are no less moving because the kid can’t ever seem to quite loosen up, even doing Pete Townsend-esque windmills in the final scene.

In the end, and in predictable ways, Dewey does right by his students by teaching them something – that devotion to a cause is a meaningful commitment in its own right, and that winning contests (in this case, Battle of the Bands) or getting As (their former value system) isn’t as important as finding your own relationship to something. That’s not so bad, but we don’t need the easy, comic-book characterizations along the way – Joan Cusack as a relentlessly uptight/polite school principal and Sarah Silverman as Mike White’s shrewish girlfriend, who stands for everything square and detestable about people who do boring things like go to bed early because they have jobs. Well, it ain’t the 60s and we don’t have the economic infrastructure for free spirits to drop out into anymore – so finding a reasonable relationship to responsibility is really the subject, not the sidebar, of many stories these days. School of Rock asks us to set our clocks back and rejoice in the sight of kids decked out in Pat Benatar-like get-ups, playing old-school rock for timidly happy parents. “South Park” and “The Simpsons” can offer us much hipper and more accurate visions of kid life, for free.

29 thoughts on “School of Rock is Squaresville”

  1. I’ve not seen this film yet, but I have to say that your criticisms have been my main worry. Would this film have overcome your criticisms if someone like John Cryer had the title roll?

    I have to say also that I no longer buy the notion that middle aged parents are all squares who don’t understand rock and roll. I work with people who are 50 years old and can’t figure out why their kids don’t like Zepplin. Their kids can’t figure out why their parents don’t like Evensence, Moby and Christina Agulera.

    Pop music as a consumable is not rebellion. Whether it’s rock, rap, R&B, etc. These genres as a whole are products which are an established part of the entertainment market. The 60s notion of Rock as a counterculter is long gone. The real rebellion against authority today, as it relates to popular music, is not in the music itself. It’s in things like online file sharing, which is an affront to big Media’s desire to control not just what they sell, but when, where and how you’ll listen to it.

    When for most kids the term Christian Rock is in no way contradictary, in what way does Rock pose any real rebellious outlet?

    I’m still going to see the film, though. I think Jack Black is awesome.

    Scotty

  2. Kristy, your complaints are valid. However, this must much be said for this film: Linklatter, White, and JB have delivered a film that is giddy with excitement and brimming with joy. Is SOR this year’s Almost Famous? Heavens, no. But if it gets a kid somewhere interested in playing guitar (and be aware: this is a very kid-friendly film, as the language is far milder than one would find on prime-time television, with no sex jokes or bloodbaths) or if it reminds some working stiff that it’s okay to want to rock out, then I think it’s given us something worth our (insert gouged price here) at the box office. Save the high hopes for next year’s Tenacious D. flick and enjoy School of Rock for what it is: this generation’s Bad News Bears (with guitars).

  3. Let’s lighten up…this is a movie…for kids…and parents…solely meant to entertain the viewers. As a serious, 29 year old music fan who loves his classic rock, comedy flicks, and funny performances, I really enjoyed this movie. I didn’t see the need to dissect it to this degree.

    Sure, there’s absurd stuff in here (how did Dewey REALLY get away with teaching a group of overprivledged rich kids NOTHING other than rock music for three weeks??? How did the kid who knew NOTHING but the cymbols become a master drummer in that time??? etc.), but it’s a flick for kids…and it doesn’t try to be anything but that. Expecting serious realism or accuracy from a movie is not really feasible.

    I also think this was a welcome theme for a movie. With so many kids solely tuning into the radio or VH1 for their music, many are lost on the notion of rock and roll. My own co-worker, in thir mid-20’s – have no clue who Pete Townsend is or where Rocky Mountain Way is…this movie might turn on a whole new group kids into lovers of the genre.

    If you expected anything more, then that’s a shame…it was a really entertaining flick – and I don’t have ANY faith in today’s Hollywood output…so, for me, that’s saying something.

    Just my $0.02.

    Jon

  4. “I didn’t see the need to dissect it to this degree.”

    This site is all about dissecting shit to this degree. That’s what we do. If you expected anything less, then that’s a shame.

  5. I don’t usually comment here, although I’ve been an avid reader for a year. While there are complaints about the movie’s use of stereotypes and generalizations in this review, the piece itself perpetuates more than a few and I find that troubling:

    – “It’s hard for people my age to still find old-school rock inspiring…” Are you really comfortable with this sweeping generalization? You have obviously become anesthetized to the charms of old-school rock, but I know people of all ages who find something new to like about tunes they’ve heard all their lives every day. Geez, you write for a music site, and this whole genre — that has influenced so many new bands — bores you? Sad.

    – “a school… unlike most mausoleums kids are stuck in these days…” ?!? Is it such a given that most schools suck? I don’t think that is the case. I’m not a teacher and I don’t work in a school (although I have in the past), but I hope and believe that when my daughter starts school in a couple of years she’ll be at the start of an exciting journey, led by teachers who care about her. I know some schools are awful — but so are some jobs, and some car washes, and some restaurants. But “mausoleums” kids are “stuck in”? Harsh and bitter.

    – “easy, comic-book characterizations…” WTF? Comics these days are written for 21-34 year olds, and most are inappropriate for a younger (and less critical) audience. Pulitzer prize winners (see Michael Chabon’s “Kavalier & Clay”) and other novelists (see Jonathan Lethem’s wonderful “Fortress of Solitude”, out now) are influenced by comics, old and new, and are even writing comics. This is a genre that has grown up, and beyond, its old four-color barriers. Go read some before you call up an outdated easy catchphrase to use as shorthand for your criticisms.

    This seems like a lazy article, and less than what I expect from this site. I feel bad being so harsh, but it caught me off guard.

    — GM in NY

  6. I have to say that the article was far from “lazy”. Lazy is saying something like “two thumbs up!” I read above a reasonable review and opinion on the film. Dissagreement can foster a dialogue and discussion.

  7. Good review, Kristy. I saw “SOR” opening night with a bunch of friends and they all left the theater giddy and humming “Back in Black”… and I just stood there indifferently rescuing Junior Mints out of the popcorn. Jack Black gave a funny performance, but so much of the movie was too unbelievable for me to really connect to – I mean, the a-retentive parents run to a music club because they think their kids have been kidnapped and start cheering when they see their kids on stage with Slash hats?

    Maybe what got to me most was the message it sent out to their target audience, the kids. Music is wonderful, and rock and roll really did change my life, but there’s something to be said for education, too. The earliest music scene shows the kids playing classical instruments in an ensemble setting and Jack Black wincing like he just watched “Saving Silverman” – but what exactly is inferior about classical music? In trying to coax the spirit of rock to run rampant, the film stereotyped musicians as lazy, uneducated bums.

    For a kid’s movie, it left the kid in me pretty neutral, and my guitar got no more play than usual. In the end, it was the leap from reality that kept me from being really entertained.

  8. While I agree that SOR is far from entirely believable, I’m sure that was the intention. It was intended to be cartoonish, for Jack Black to be larger than life (as always), and for most of the other characters to be stereotypical. That’s what kids movies are like. If they reflected real life kids wouldn’t watch them.

    But I will say that it’s nice to see a movie aimed at kids that is equally entertaining, IMHO, for adults. Most of what passes for kids movies these days is dumbed down, politically correct, boring shite. Sure SOR is not as good as “Almost Famous”, “Dazed & Confused”, “High Fidelity” or even “Singles”, but since those were all aimed at adults, they can’t quite be compared apples to apples. It’s entertaining, not life changing, but does every movie have to be?

  9. – “It’s hard for people my age to still find old-school rock inspiring…” Are you really comfortable with this sweeping generalization?

    Yes. I didn’t say we don’t still enjoy those great 70s/80s rock songs, but finding them inspiring is different.

    “the mausoleums most kids are stuck in” — maybe I should have said ‘many kids’. I hope most kids aren’t high and dry. But the govt. has been draining money out of education for so long that it seems many schools are foundering from lack of supplies, adequate classroom space, motivated teachers etc.

    “Comic book characterizations” — You have me there! No offense to all the great comic books out there.

  10. I can’t believe someone just compared The School of Rock to Almost Famous! The School of Rock is singlehandedly introducing some children to the pure fun and enjoyment of playing and appreciating rock and roll music, it is introducing kids to the “team” approach where it’s not all about the friggin guitar player up front, where the lights, security, etc are all important roles to play within a group performance, it’s putting forth positive messages about body image and how the real spirit of rock and roll is not about sitting around playing cards in a van and drinking whiskey, and most importantly, it’s playful, and asking everyone to lighten up and have a good time, even the principal.

    Almost Famous, on the other hand, is a contrived, overhyped piece of crap about a little boy’s relationship with a rock and roll hussy, made by the guy who married one of the chicks from Heart. Almost Famous is not about rock and roll, it’s about being famous, and as such, it has nothing to offer the viewer but the sound of a pompous corporate writer slapping himself on the back.

    Almost Famous sucks, School of Rock forever!!!

  11. “Almost Famous” had a lot to do with rock and roll. The entire movie was built around the passion the writer had for the music and how he got to become part of it. We should all be so lucky.

  12. Kristy’s criticism of the film was the only thing that actually convinced me to go see the movie. And I just came back from watching it. (It just happens!) I would have to second Ryan all the way on this. There’s nothing ill-conceived about the flick. It is what it is: a fun family film, and a highly enjoyable one at that. One would have to be rather humorless to scrutinize it to the point of condemnation, IMHO. Its silliness is what makes it so endearing.

  13. Wow… You need to, y’know… lighten up… a lot… This movie is pretty much a family flick. When I went and saw it, the theater was full of a LOT of kids the age of the kids in the film, with their parents… All the kids in the theater applauded the big battle of the bands scene at the end, even… it was a very enjoyable way to spend $7.50, in my opinion.

    Jack Black has commented that this was the first film he’s done in which the character he played was written just for him… and he pulled it off incredibly well… No, it’s not ANYTHING like the old days when he and Kyle used to do their stand-up act complete with the gay prostitute sketch… it’s basically just a kids movie… anyone expecting anything else (such as yourself) is in for a big disappointment…

  14. RE: Ryan’s comments about Almost Famous being “a contrived, overhyped piece of crap about a little boy’s relationship with a rock and roll hussy, made by the guy who married one of the chicks from Heart.” How can it be contrived when it’s based on a true story? It’s based on Cameron Crowe’s own story as a rock writer, where his first professional assignment was to cover the Allman Brothers on tour at the age of 16. The love interest thing might have been fake, but that was only a minor sidebar to the real point of the story. The point, IMHO, was simply to show how much rock ‘n roll means to some people and and how it can bring together people from completely different backgrounds for a common purpose. And it was hardly overhyped. Now if you’re talking the Matrix movies, THOSE are overhyped – and as fucking fake as they come.

  15. I would rather hear someone write about the Monster Mash. I bet the dude that wrote “Monster Mash” makes a shitload on royalties. How about a holiday piece about that… Snap to it Glono.

    And who gives a shit about the pig-faced Jack Black. Fuckem’.

    -KB

  16. I heard that the rock band who sits in their van drinking whiskey and playing cards was based on the Chicago alternative country band Riviera.

  17. “I heard that the rock band who sits in their van drinking whiskey and playing cards was based on the Chicago alternative country band Riviera.”

    Riviera would never sit in a van. Too posh for that sort of thing.

  18. I haven’t seen the movie, nor do I intend to.

    Tony said “This movie is pretty much a family flick. When I went and saw it, the theater was full of a LOT of kids the age of the kids in the film, with their parents…”

    This struck me as ridiculous. I wasn’t there (in the sixties and seventies) but I’m fairly certain that rocking out was not a family affair. It was (and still is, I hope) a very personal rebellion. I mean, it’s great that kids are seeing this stuff. It’s a shame that not only is it, ONE; cheapened by the usual hollywood bullshit, and TWO; the kids aren’t being shown this by thier parents or older siblings or what have you. Furthermore, I don’t really see how you can put any sort of faith in this movie. This seems to me to be another hollywood movie crafted to find a target market. Like all that garbage, it’s made for profit. Granted, there’s probably a few grains of what oldskool rock was all about, but it’s there to sell the movie. It’s about as real as Jar-Jar Binks (damn him!). “Almost Famous”, as was said, is a true story, and it captures the urgency of that life, the extreme highs and lows. Anyway, the whole rebellion thing IS dead. And old. Just look at our man Nicholson. They sell rebellion on posters, and with every parental advisory cd (what a thrill). As far as I can see, this movie is just another way to cash in on something that used to be beautiful and true.

    As far as the Matrix goes…come on. I don’t see you giving Star Wars any shit.

  19. First of all, I hope the person who intimated that Sly Stone is dead was joking. His career might be dead, but Sly is most definitely alive.

    Secondly, all you folks who are saying that rockin’ out isn’t a family affair… uh, do any of you have kids? I take pains to let my kids know that there is more out there than the crap on the radio, and when I see my 6-year-old boy pogoing at an all-ages show that I took him to, it does my heart good. In this house, rockin’ out is definitely a family affair.

    Haven’t seen the movie, but intend to. Jack Black is a riot.

  20. This was a fun flick, mostly because it WASN’T grounded in any sort of reality at all. It’s entertainment…fiction…not a documentary.

    ‘This site is all about dissecting shit to this degree. That’s what we do. If you expected anything less, then that’s a shame.’ – Jake

    To that point, Kristy has taken this film apart in Zapruder-like fashion…dissecting it, putting it back together and then dissecting it again. I went into this flick wanting to just enjoy it for what it was supposed to be…a fun movie about loving rock music. There’s no hidden agenda in this flick, no majory allegory…not near as much to this movie as was written about it in this piece.

    Wow.

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