Dewey Finn (Jack Black, "Shallow Hal") is a 30-something metal guitarist who has just been kicked out of his band. Facing the wrath of his roommate, Ned (Mike White, "The Good Girl"), and his girlfriend (Sarah Silverman, sadly wasted here) for past-due rent, Dewey happens upon a phone call meant for Ned offering a substitute teacher position at an elegant prep school. Assuming Ned's identity, Dewey takes over a class of 5th graders and soon recognizes that he could start a rock band with the kids, exacting revenge on those that discouraged his talents before. Taking the kids through Classic Rock 101, Dewey molds the class into true metal musicians, ultimately gunning for a "Battle of the Bands" competition.
Sure, I could discuss the fine direction, writing (by co-star Mike White), and overall giddiness of "School of Rock" (IMDb listing), but to start there would be ludicrous. The main attraction of the film is Jack Black, plain and simple. While his previous leading role in the Farrelly Brothers' "Shallow Hal" was a terrific upgrade from Black's normal sidekick routine, "School" is the first film to somehow cram that sidekick energy into a lead performance. Black is a tornado of sweat, hair and potentially meth-enhanced exuberance as Dewey. Director Richard Linklater has chosen to step away from trying to control Black, and has just allowed him to work his comedy magic, amplified here by his interaction with children. Since 2000's "High Fidelity," Black has become one of the funniest actors around, helping unappealing films like "Orange County" and "Saving Silverman" get laughs they would most certainly not have without his input. "School" doesn't push Black's dramatic skills in the least bit, instead allowing the actor to basically go full volume on his wild brand of comedy. Miraculously, he never irritates once.
Mixed in with the story are opportunities for Black to stretch out his musical talents as well. One half of the near-genius rock duo Tenacious D, Black comes to "Rock" with an already masterful take on the heavy metal genre. Linklater exploits this skillfully, giving generous amounts of screen time to Black's convulsive "rocking out" movements, which always leads to pure belly laughs. Black is an animated comedian, at times looking and sounding like the love child of John Belushi and Chris Farley. But I never grew tired of Black's whirlwind performance in "Rock. " In fact I applaud his vivacity and his commitment for laughs. It is a very rare trait in comic actors these days.
Linklater is coming off the one-two punch of his 2001 indie films, the tense one-act play "Tape," and the tedious animated philosophical journey, "Waking Life." Taking those films' overall integrity into consideration, "Rock" seems like an atypical project for the director to accept. The film marks Linklater's big studio comeback after bombing with the misguided "Newton Boys" five years ago, and he has a perfect feel for what "Rock" needs to be successful. The director tones down the message of the film, and the third act melodrama that normally accompanies it. While "Rock" succumbs to a loss of energy in the final moments, it isn't stopped dead by it, unlike other productions cut from the same cloth.
Linklater also uses a cast of kids who are mostly non-professionals, but in a terrific, refreshingly natural way. Their interaction with the manic Black is often priceless. Linklater enhances the production with his love for the rock music Dewey is trying to push on the kids (including Rush, AC/DC, The Who and Led Zeppelin). Showing the kids learning the ways of old school metal, from the exact placement of the finger drumstick twirl to the "metal face" one needs to play lead guitar, are some of the highlights of the picture. There is obvious affection for the music, and Linklater is not afraid to let his metal horns fly.
With "School of Rock," Linklater manages to fall ass-backwards into one of the best family films of the year (don't let the PG-13 rating fool you, this is a pretty clean movie), showing that a picture centered on kids doesn't need flatulence humor to get by. Other music-based productions this year, such as "Garage Days" or "Camp," only allege to be about music in its purest form. "School of Rock" is the picture that gives rock music the valentine it deserves.
Filmfodder Grade: A-