In the world of music fandom, there are the casual admirers who call it “rock,” and the amped-up, wild-eyed fanatics who prefer “RAWK.” Dewey Finn (Jack Black), the maniacal musician at the center of Richard Linklater’s charmingly exuberant School of Rock, falls headfirst into the latter category. A self-anointed guitar god extraordinaire, Dewey drives a smoke-spewing van plastered with Godsmack and Led Zeppelin stickers, talks incessantly about his abundant artistic gifts, and indulges in orgiastic guitar solos during every live performance. He’s a true believer with a screw loose and a severe blind spot when it comes to assessing his own talent.
When Dewey is unceremoniously kicked out of his band and his roommates Ned (Mike White) and Patty (Sarah Silverman) begin demanding rent money, the roly-poly wannabe rock star decides to earn some cash by impersonating Ned and taking a substitute teaching position at elite preparatory academy Horace Green. Unfortunately, the uptight, obsessively driven 10-year-olds who populate his class are less interested in recess and slacking off than their incompetent new teacher had hoped. But when Dewey discovers that the bookish types in the class are also classically trained musical prodigies, he seizes the opportunity to trick them into being his backing band for an upcoming battle of the bands contest.
School of Rock takes flight as the spastic Dewey puts the kids through Rock Boot Camp, teaching them the theatrical gestures and anti-establishment attitude (“Fight da man”) characteristic of a true rock deity. Black’s Dewey—like Black himself when performing with real-life band Tenacious D—is a manic, Pillsbury Dough Boy buffoon in perpetual whirlybird overdrive, and he exudes such an infectious passion for rock n’ roll that his devilish antics (most of which involve keeping the kid’s rock rehearsals secret from Joan Cusak’s stressed out principal Mullins) seem genuinely liberating. Dewey’s entire body seems electrified by music. As he tells his pestering roommates, “I service society by rocking.”
Working from Mike White’s sharp script, Linklater maintains the film’s turbo-charged momentum by juxtaposing Black’s hyperactivity with a cast of refreshingly unaffected (and musically accomplished) kids who can really kick out the jams. Despite a hoary plot turn lurking around every corner, Linklater deftly navigates these potential narrative pitfalls by choosing to hint at, rather than hammer home, the film’s lessons about the life-affirming power of music. Overbearing parents never devolve into abusive monsters; overweight children with performance anxiety never clam up on stage; Dewey, a notorious spotlight hog, never disappoints his kids by stealing the show. School of Rock tackles its familiar formula with a welcome mixture of reverence, intelligence, and cliché moderation.
If the film occasionally resorts to unnecessary stereotyping for laughs (did we really need the effeminate boy who wants to be the band’s wardrobe designer?), its admiration for the classic rock of the ‘60s and ‘70s is both heartfelt and contagious. In Linklater’s riotous comedy, the desire to crank out a thunderous power-chord or burst forth with a bombastic drum solo resides inside both the young and—in the case of principal Mullins, a closet Stevie Nicks fan—the old. The climactic concert, featuring Dewey decked out in Angus Young-inspired shorts, thrillingly confirms his maxim that one great rock show can change the world. For those responsible for the joyous School of Rock, we salute you.