I’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.