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The School of Rock

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
The School of Rock

from Film Forum, 10/09/03

Director Richard Linklater, best known for his intellectually challenging art-house films (Waking Life, Before Sunrise), finds himself #1 at the box office this week with his most formulaic and commercial endeavor, The School of Rock. It's admittedly a predictable lowbrow comedy, but a surprisingly enjoyable one, thanks especially to the starmaking turn by Jack Black.

Obnoxious and reckless, Black belongs among the ranks of the most manic comedians. While he lacks Robin Williams' sophisticated wit and Jim Carrey's versatile range of expression, he shares their boisterous stage manner, and like John Belushi, he can also rock-and-roll. (During his offscreen hours Black plays gigs in a band called Tenacious D.) Director Stephen Frears knew enough to cast Black as a record-store know-it-all in High Fidelity, but Linklater has custom-made School to exhibit Black's passion for heavy metal from trivia to performance. He may have been confined to small supporting roles in Bob Roberts, Dead Man Walking, Waterworld, and Orange County, but this time Jack is ready for the spotlight, guitar in hand.

Fortunately for moviegoers, and despite Black's reputation as a comedy anarchist, the movie has a big heart, avoids crude indulgence, and gives viewers of all ages something to enjoy. Even religious press critics are moshing with the enthusiastic mainstream critics—most of them, anyway.

Black plays Dewey Finn, a heavy-metal-rock-star-wannabe. The film opens as Dewey is kicked out of his band. Hurt and fuming, he trudges home, only to receive an eviction notice from his roommate, a substitute schoolteacher named Ned (Linklater's co-writer, Mike White). Needing money, Dewey gets desperate and answers a call intended for his roommate. Before he realizes what is expected of him, he's stammering before a classroom full of skeptical sixth-graders, his dress shirt and bow tie barely containing his undisciplined spirit. It does not take long for him to cast off the curriculum and, behind the back of the school's legalistic principal (Joan Cusack), begin schooling the children in the history of rock music.

He doesn't stop there. The local "Battle of the Bands" is heating up, and Dewey wants to be on the battlefield. When he discovers his youngsters' musical talent, he begins training them how to listen to the Who, and then how to play like Pete Townsend. Before the parents, teachers, and police have a chance to interfere, he has entered his kids in the competition. Catastrophe surely awaits.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says that the filmmakers "wisely build their film around Black, who rewards them by staying on warp drive from beginning to end."

"I like the fact that this movie focuses on a whole generation of kids and pre-teens who have never heard (gasp) or even understood what the world of rock and roll was and is all about," says Holly McClure (Crosswalk). "Hopefully it will inspire a few kids to play an instrument, take band class, get involved in a music lesson outside their home. Ultimately the story's message about overcoming odds and criticism and rising to the occasion to prove yourself is a theme I think everyone will relate to."

Lisa Rice (Movieguide) says it is "marred by some obscenities and the whole theme of loving rock music." But she gives it a "really cute" rating anyway.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) is not so amused. He says the film's positive message "is undermined by a problematic bass rhythm that pokes fun at parental authority and the value of any subject that can't be learned on an electric guitar. While its celebration of rock'n'roll music is not in itself a bad thing, the film offers a rather one-sided picture of rock culture … sugar-coating its darker side."

But Frederica Mathewes-Green (Our Sunday Visitor) had a grand time, largely due to the Black's charisma. She describes her experience as "a couple of hours of continual laughing." For cautious families, she adds, "Despite the rockin' theme, there is little to worry parents, no bad language or sexual situations, and Finn makes it clear to his charges that rock is not about 'getting wasted' but has a higher, if nebulous goal."

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) calls it "a rollicking good time and a jolt of earthy energy that parents can enjoy alongside their kids without cringing or apologizing. It deserves its four stars."

But Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) disagrees. "When Black is building his pupils' self-esteem, School of Rock rocks. But their education includes lessons in rebellion and belting out profane lyrics. [The movie] will alienate families who fail to find humor in heavy-metal idolatry and the corruption of children."

I had fun at the film, but I'm only giving this School a B-. While the children are charming and the music is a hoot, the jokes are rarely sharper than what you'll find in sitcom-land. The script feels like a rough draft and a predictable routine. Worse, it foolishly stereotypes parents and teachers as generally clueless about their young charges. Black's Finn is the only fully developed character, and Joan Cusack is not given enough room to exercise her own talents. Further, I was disappointed to feel an unspoken approval for how the students' new role model teaches them to deceive their elders in order to attain worldly glory.

Nevertheless, the strengths outweigh the weaknesses. While Linklater glosses over rock's more rugged realities, he strikes some profound chords regarding the importance of humility, creativity, self-expression, and teamwork. For the most part, Rock is a worthwhile jam session for discerning viewers. Just be sure to discuss it with your kids if you take them along.

Mainstream critics argue for and against the movie, but the majority are pleased. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) says, "The other day I saw a family film named Good Boy! that was astonishingly stupid, and treated its audience as if it had a tragically slow learning curve and was immune to boredom. Here is a movie that proves you can make a family film that's alive and well-acted and smart and perceptive and funny—and that rocks." He adds that he has no idea why the movie is rated PG-13.

The School of Rock vs. The Fighting Temptations

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) is not turning cartwheels over Linklater's School of Rock, but in an e-mail he offered me a revealing comparison between this reckless, high-spirited comedy and another recent music-oriented flick: The Fighting Temptations. Which film would you guess is richer, the one about the rock band or the one about the gospel choir? Guess again.

(Warning: Some spoilers are included in these comparisons.)

Both movies feature a charlatan protagonist, a man who, having lost his main gig in life, finds an unexpected opportunity to profit if he pretends to have credentials he doesn't have. [Further, he] winds up cobbling together an unlikely musical act from inauspicious beginnings, intending to lead it to competition glory and potential financial reward. Both films also pit the hero against a suspicious, uptight woman in a position of authority who is a stickler for rules and is intimidating to others.In both films, the protagonist is exposed for the fraud he is, and departs in disgrace. However, there are no real-world consequences for his criminal acts in either film, as both films find ridiculously contrived ways of glossing over the whole subject. More importantly, despite his having been exposed and disgraced, the bond between the hero and the musicians ultimately wins out, and in the third act they are triumphantly reunited, and go on to the climactic concert showdown.Having said all that, here are some interesting differences:The School of Rock makes it abundantly clear that the music is about something more than itself, and that the climactic concert is about something other than potentially winning and making a lot of money. In The Fighting Temptations, on the other hand, there is never any suggestion that gospel music is about anything other than the music itself, or that there is any point to playing at the final competition other than to win.By the end of School of Rock, we have a good bit of understanding and sympathy for Joan Cusack's character, and she shows herself capable of sympathetic behavior as well as human weakness. In Temptations, … the uptight female figure becomes more and more an antagonist and is finally shamed and disgraced with stunningly unchristian glee by her pastor brother, and sent ignominiously away.