School of Rock (United States, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

I don't want to call Richard Linklater a "sellout," since that's probably as unfair as it is unkind. But The School of Rock is clearly Linklater's attempt to develop some box office clout – something he has not achieved with critically acclaimed, sparsely attended features like Before Sunrise, Waking Life, and Tape. So, like Gus Van Sant with Good Will Hunting, Linklater has ventured into the mainstream. However, whereas Van Sant could at least claim that Good Will Hunting was a good movie, Linklater cannot make the same statement about his first mass-market suitor. The School of Rock is feel-good tripe: a string of clichés lashed together by a formulaic plot that features underwritten characters and sit-com style humor.

The key to the film's watchability lies in your opinion of lead actor Jack Black, who (depending on your view of him) either carries The School of Rock on his back or buries it under his impressive weight. Black fans will be delighted by this opportunity for him to light up the screen. His detractors will run screaming from theaters. In general, I like Black as a supporting character. The School of Rock has too much of the amped-up actor. After a while, his high-voltage, scenery-chewing approach becomes wearisome. But there's no denying that he adds some pizzazz to the movie - a quality that is not supplied by the screenplay or Linklater's direction.

Dewey Finn (Black) lives for rock 'n roll - not the kind of lame stuff that populates the radio airwaves these days, but the classic material. He's a walking encyclopedia of groups, singers, and songs. However, although Dewey loves the music, he's not the most adept artist, and his on-stage antics often make him more of a liability than an asset. So, when his bandmates fire him and his house-mate, Ned (Mike White), threatens to throw him out if he can't come up with his share of the rent, Dewey knows some changes have to be made. He starts by impersonating Ned to get a long-term substitute teacher's job. At first, Dewey doesn't know what to do with a classroom full of elementary school kids, but, when he discovers that several of them show signs of musical aptitude, he gets an idea - transform his pupils into a group and enter them into a "best band" contest. Of course, all of this has to be kept secret from the other kids, the parents, and especially Principal Mullins (Joan Cusack).

It's Sister Act meets Dangerous Minds, with the most galling qualities of both in bas-relief. The School of Rock doesn't have anything interesting to say or do. It's pure saccharine inspiration with occasional bursts of failed comic relief and a few exceptionally choreographed and executed rock numbers. The latter are what redeem The School of Rock to the extent that it can be saved. However, where the recent The Fighting Temptations, rescued us from an equally lame plot with 45 minutes of music, Linklater seems to believe that his storyline and characters are worth their screen time. So, with a few minor exceptions, the rock doesn't start rolling until the final fifteen minutes (and one song is during the end credits).

The key to a feel-good movie like this succeeding has very little to do with the overall plot, which must follow certain time-honored formulas. Instead, it has to do with the likeability and believability of the characters, and that's where The School of Rock stumbles most obviously. It's a lot easier to swallow the kinds of mammoth plot contrivances this movie spews out if there are a few well-developed individuals hanging around. Unfortunately, the kids (as cute as some of them may be) are all stereotypes. The adult supporting characters are equally poorly developed (the straight-laced principal, the timid house-mate, the shrewish girlfriend). And Dewey is just Jack Black with a jones for anything to do with rock.

The presence of Black and Cusack in a story about music may evoke thoughts of High Fidelity, but that association only makes The School of Rock seem less palatable. There are elements that keep this movie from being a complete waste of time - the musical numbers are highlights, some of the kids (many of whom are non-professional actors) are cute, and there are isolated moments when the dialogue grows barbs. Nevertheless, my overall impression was not a positive one, and it's not just because I expect so much more from a filmmaker of Linklater's ability. I would have been as irritated with this movie if it was made by a first-time director. The School of Rock is made-for-TV quality, and, if you must see it, that's the medium where it deserves to be watched.

School of Rock (United States, 2003)

Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Jack Black, Mike White, Joan Cusack, Zack Denny, Sarah Silverman, Kevin Alexander Clark, Miranda Cosgrove, Joey Gaydos, Cole Hawkins
Screenplay: Mike White
Cinematography: Rogier Stoffers
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2003-10-03
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1