Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:48 - Released 10/3/03

When I was coming of age in the ‘70s, it seemed to be every young man’s dream to be in a rock band; I even had some friends who got together every afternoon to put on their guitars and work diligently on mastering the solos from their latest Pink Floyd or KISS or Led Zeppelin album. Alas, something has changed over the years—the combination of video games, MTV, and Napster has reduced rock ‘n roll from the meaningful, conceptual poetry it was to some overcommercialized bastard child of its former self. But thank goodness there are a few people out there who understand this and try to keep the vision alive. Mike White, writer, Richard Linklater, director, and Jack Black, star of School Of Rock, combine their talents to create a hilarious, thought-provoking, and thoroughly rockin’ movie about an aging hipster who introduces a group of talented prep school kids to the good old rock ‘n roll dream. This movie may not appeal to everyone, but if you’re a fan of Hendrix, The Beatles, The Stones, Morrison, Page & Plant, Gilmour & Waters, or any of their contemporaries, and you want your kids to understand why you occasionally have to go to the garage and get out those funny old black vinyl disks, you should take them to see this movie. School Of Rock is rated PG-13 because it uses occasional rock ‘n roll language like “kick-ass” and “bitchin’,” but if your skin is thick enough to withstand this, it is well worth it. With some hilarious dialogue, some kick-ass lyrics, and bitchin’ guitar solos, Black, White, and Linklater show they truly understand what it was, what it is, to be a lover of ‘70s rock.

Black plays Dewey Finn, an overweight rock ’n roll throwback who, when he is kicked out of his own band for his enthusiastic but technically lacking guitar solos and tacky stage dives, is forced to desperation in order to raise some rent money. He learns of a well-paying substitute teaching job, pretends to be his geeky roommate Ned (writer White), and signs on as fill-in teacher for a bunch of precocious pre-teens. At first he tries to simply sit back and let the kids do what they want, but when he overhears them playing in music class, he gets an idea: he will exploit their talent and form a new rock band to compete in the upcoming talent show at a local club, the winner of which will receive a fat check and a chance for a recording contract. Disguising his intentions as a class project, he assigns instruments to the more musically-inclined students and roadie/management jobs to those better suited to behind-the-scenes work.

Upon learning of the kids’ woefully underdeveloped understanding of pop music, Dewey begins teaching a hilarious crash course in the history of rock and assigns CD-listening homework like Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon and Yes’s Fragile. As the class-based rehearsals continue, always keeping an eye out for the school’s prissy principal (Joan Cusack), his exploitative plans evolve into a true love for his enthusiastic students and their increasingly impressive rock style. As he clumsily puts it, “These kids have truly touched me, and I think I’ve touched all of them, too.”

Although the story of this film is cute and the music is toe-tappingly fun, it is Jack Black’s absolute devotion to the subject matter that makes it such a pleasure to watch. This should really be a fish-out-of-water role, but Black will have none of that: he’s a fish in the water, and he swims around in it with abandon. Like his turn in High Fidelity, but with much more vigor, he personifies the passion with which ‘70s rock was delivered by the best of its purveyors. Rock, he reminds us with every look, move, and gesture, is not about being pretty or hitting every note perfectly; it’s about anger, and attitude, and saying it right in their faces. It’s about putting your guts out there and saying, “here it is—deal with it!” His dialogue is hilarious and often ad-libbed, his devotion to rock is clear, but his interaction with the cast of kids is also amazingly real and non-patronizing. Every word he utters is believable; every expression fresh and spontaneous.

Which brings us to the kids. It is obvious that the children in this movie are not all professional actors, but many of them are obviously talented musicians who share a love of classic rock music despite their young age. Among the pre-teen band members Dewey assembles is a guitar prodigy (Joey Gaydos), a talented bassist (Rebecca Brown), an amazing drummer (Kevin Clark), a nimble-fingered keyboardist (Robert Tsai), and a trio of singers (Maryam Hassan, Caitlin Hale, and Aleisha Allen), all of whom are clearly singing and playing their own instruments with the style and finesse of seasoned headbangers. What a curious thing it is to see a 10-year-old guitarist who can play “Smoke On The Water” to perfection.

On the way home from this movie, I happened to have Who’s Next playing on the car stereo. Although I didn’t do as good a job as Mr. Black explaining the importance of Moon and Townshend to my 8- and 9-year old sons, I tried. For a little while, the old music-loving rock ‘n roll disciple in me was reborn, turning up the stereo, pointing to the speakers, and demonstrating to my baffled children the technique of the windmill guitar solo or of smashing the Rickenbacker into tiny bits. And I guess that’s the important thing that this movie does: it reminds us old 40-somethings how important it is to rock out once in a while, and to keep the spirit alive in our kids. ****½

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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