It’s not that THE SCHOOL OF ROCK blazes any new trails cinematically. It’s a strictly by the numbers story, but with Jack Black as its hyperkinetic star, it’s a joy to watch.
He’s Dewey Finn, a rock musician recently tossed from his band and about to be tossed from the apartment he shares with old pal, Ned (screenwriter Mike White), a wobbly nebbishy musician turned substitute teacher, and Ned’s very pushy girlfriend. It seems that she has upset the delicate balance whereby Dewey mooches off of Ned and everyone is happy. Faced with homelessness as well as bandlessness when no musician in the area will play with him, Dewey makes a fateful snap decision. When a prestigious prep school calls looking for Ned, Dewey pretends to be him and takes over a fifth grade class of overachievers.
Now, as I was saying, this is strictly a formula plot. The kids learn to loosen up with Dewey’s unconventional approach to life, and Dewey learns a little about responsibility. It all happens during the course of Dewey’s scheme, one even more harebrained than pretending to be a teacher. He’s going to turn the kids into his band instead of teaching them math or science, enter them in a battle of the bands concert, and shred his Fender into rock stardom. All he has to do is fool the other teachers with some glib double-talk and work his charm on the uptight principal played by a deliriously straight-laced Joan Cusack, whose strand of pearls and prim sweater set barely conceal a woman on the verge of a meltdown.
Black plays Dewey as the bastard child of Jack Nicholson and Elvis. The eyebrows prehensile, the hips moving independently from the rest of his ample torso, he’s a bombastic teddy bear with lots of cunning, but little smarts. That’s where the kids come in, and a nice bunch of the usual suspects they are, a fat one, a shy one, a cocky one, an introverted one, and, of course, one of them falling into the precociously annoying category. But, hey, someone has to manage the band. On the other hand, there’s Billy (Brian Falduto), the band’s Liza-loving self-appointed stylist who nails the attitude and the melodrama of being an artiste.
Still, this is Black’s film and he turns in a performance that is not only funny, but also unexpectedly moving. He goes from using the kids to actually caring about them without making it seem like the cliché that it is. There is one scene where he has to deliver a pep talk to the plump girl with the pipes that won’t quit, but who won’t go onstage because she’s afraid people will laugh at her. He’s never condescending, he’s never maudlin, he’s never chirpy delivering the bad news that, yeah, she’s got weight issues, so does he, but all people care about is the music, holding up Aretha as an example.
It’s easy to get swept along by THE SCHOOL OF ROCK’s exuberance. And there’s absolutely no reason to fight the feeling.