School of Rock is little more than a Jack Black vanity vehicle with a plot so transparent you can practically see the screenwriter's tab indents.
But you know what? It still rocks.
In the event that you've spent the last five years in a cave, Jack Black is a chunkster comedic powerhouse who manages to simultaneously mock, rock and mock-the-rock. He stole the show from John Cusack in Stephen Frear's High Fidelity, had his own short-lived HBO series, and has side kicked it in comedies like Saving Silverman and Shallow Hal. He's often likened to John Belushi, though I'd add an apoplectic pinch of Bobcat Goldthwait for good measure.
School of Rock, directed by Richard Linklater of Slacker and Waking Life fame follows a predictable course. Voted out of his glam rock band for his indulgent guitar solos (is there any other kind?) and disastrous stage dives, Dewey Finn (Black) is also on thin ice for perpetual rent shirking from his substitute teacher roommate, Ned (screenwriter Mike White).
No band, no dough; Black is forced to confront the dreaded anti-rock prospect of a job. Which, conveniently enough, slaps him in the face when the snooty principal of a local elementary school for overachievers (Joan Cusack) phones for his roommate. Naturally, the opportunity is too ripe to resist, so Dewey dons his bow tie and tweed (cause, you know, teachers still wear that stuff) to masquerade as his roomie for a month of well-paid babysitting.
Initially content to let his young charges dawdle the days away, Dewey's tune changes into a power chord of implausible ambition when he discovers that some of his kids have musical talent. And so the bell rings on the school of rock. Dewey refers to it as the "class project" and his game of baffling teachers and students with his impassioned baloney is more than a little amusing. In reality, he's hustling his underage troops into a preadolescent version of the Commitments. Appointing students to various musical and extra-musical posts (security, costumes, band manager), Black teaches a rock ethos that peaked somewhere between the last Van Halen tour and Metallica's first MTV appearance.
This is the juicy question the film raises and promptly flees. Underlying the premise is the arguably frightening fact that today's young people need to learn about rockers like The Ramones from teachers, as their pop culture grip is about as tight as Dick Clark's. During one early scene, Dewey grills his class about their rock influences. The answers -- Christina Aguilera, Puff Daddy, Liza Minnelli, -- horrify him. Dewey is so inspiring not because his arena rock aspirations are delusional, but because he's a breathing anachronism.
As mentioned before, School of Rock is the Jack Black show. The kids, the parents, the plot are merely backdrops for his fulminations, preposterous Led Zeppelinesque spoof songs, and undeniably charming rock coaching. Fans of Black's musical comedy outfit, Tenacious D, might find the PG-13 version a little tame. And for those heartless souls who don't find Black giggle-worthy, well I'm sure there's something really poignant in this month's Reader's Digest.
At risk of undue plot disclosure, Dewey's identity scam does not last. Parents and principals are outraged; kids are denied their chance to rock. Will fate and a hijacked school bus save the day?
I'll let you find out.
-- John Dicker