Movies You Gotta See
‘School of Rock’: Revisiting the quintessential Jack Black film 20 years later
BY JALEN MAKI
School of Rock could only be led by one actor on this planet, and his name is Jack Black.
In School of Rock, the 2003 comedy film directed by Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Boyhood, the Before trilogy), Black plays Dewey Finn, a kind-hearted, struggling rock musician living with his friend and former-bandmate-turned-substitute teacher Ned Schneebly (Mike White, who wrote the film) and Ned’s cold and controlling girlfriend Patti (Sarah Silverman). After being kicked out of his band (20-minute guitar solos and ill-fated stage dives among the reasons why) ahead of a potentially lucrative battle of the bands competition, and on the verge of being thrown out of the apartment by Ned at Patti’s behest, a cash-strapped Dewey makes a desperate and risky move: he pretends to be Ned and takes a job as a substitute teacher at an esteemed local prep school.
What starts out as simply a scheme to pay his share of the rent takes an unexpected turn when Dewey makes a surprising discovery – the students in his class, all about ten years old, rock. Well, not exactly – although their focus is classical music, Dewey sees their headbanging potential, and with the battle of the bands competition’s $10,000.00 top prize seemingly within reach, he hatches a plan.
The students return from their music class to find that their classroom has been transformed into a makeshift jam space. A few of them are recruited as band members – lead guitar, drums, bass, keyboards and backup vocals – and Dewey takes on the role of lead singer and rhythm guitarist. The rest of the students are given an array of assignments, including band manager, roadies, and security.
Dewey tells the students that the battle of the bands is a prestigious class project that would have positive effects on their futures, but that’s not true – he makes it up to pique their interest and ensure their full focus and participation.
Dewey casts the less important subjects aside (you know, like math and reading and social studies and whatnot) and replaces them with what is essentially Rock and Roll 101. As part of the coolest class ever conceived, the kids are given CDs by Led Zeppelin, Blondie, Rush, Pink Floyd, and other legends as “homework,” and over the course of several weeks (depicted in a montage featuring my favorite Ramones song, “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg”), Dewey teaches the kids everything he knows about rock. He provides a lesson on the interconnectedness of music genres and shows the kids footage of the greats – the students attentively study Pete Townshend of The Who’s trademark windmill guitar technique, legendary jazz drummer Buddy Rich, and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. Meanwhile, the band and crew continue to gear up for the competition.
Although watching the kids learn the nuts and bolts of rock and roll is incredibly fun, the heart of the movie lies in Dewey’s individual interactions with the students.
One of my favorite moments in the film happens when Lawrence, a shy piano virtuoso who’s taken up the mantle of keyboardist, flawlessly sight reads The Doors’ “Touch Me,” to which Dewey reacts with the delight and giddiness of a child who was just handed three hundred dollars in cash seconds before entering a candy store. Later that day, Lawrence approaches Dewey in the cafeteria and confesses that he doesn’t think he’s “cool” enough to be in the band. Dewey’s response – reassuring Lawrence that he is, in fact, “the cat’s pajamas” and “the bee’s knees” and the subsequent secret handshake he devises on the fly – is almost overwhelmingly kind.
Several other similar moments happen throughout the film – a student expresses their feelings of insecurity or doubt to Dewey, and he responds with genuine compassion and offers admittedly idiosyncratic, yet surprisingly sage, individually-tailored advice.
There are few things more important to a kid than feeling a sense of belonging. As an outcast himself, Dewey knows this as well as anyone, and through his own personal experience, he connects with the kids in a very unique and effective way. Dewey’s ability to make the kids feel like they’re part of something that matters, while, on a personal level, reassuring each them of their importance to the band and encouraging them to empower themselves by embracing their skills, is simply wonderful and, in a strange way, kind of heartbreaking – it’s easy to imagine that this kind of support was absent from Dewey’s life at such a crucial age.
This all isn’t to say Dewey’s perfect. I mean, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the man connived his way into a teaching position he was extremely unqualified for and exploited the students and the school for personal and financial gain. This is frowned upon, and from a legal perspective, you could probably make a pretty ironclad case that Dewey should’ve ended up in the crowbar hotel. But, no one was harmed, everyone learned a lesson or two, and the band ended up being pretty awesome, which, in totality, affords Dewey a little leniency from the long arm of the law, in my opinion.
School of Rock would not be School of Rock without Jack Black. He’s a rocket ship to Mars from the opening scene to the end credits, delivering an absolutely singular performance. Black has an uncanny ability to shift gears dynamically – in one scene, he’ll do something that would make other actors, let alone normal people, look insane (vocally improvising guitar solos, for example); and in the next, he’ll display authentic humanity and profound tenderness. Yet, these frequent changes in energy and tone aren’t jarring or disorienting; Black oscillates between these two extremes with remarkable ease and grace. Black is the personification of charisma and kindness. He is the soul of the film.
School of Rock turned 20 years on Oct. 3, but it is absolutely evergreen. Neil Young once said, “Rock and roll can never die,” and I believe that to be the truth, but the search for acceptance amid the trials and tribulations of youth will also endure. Everyone, whether they’re 10 years old or 70, wants a place to belong, and the people who open their doors and hearts to such havens are the best among us. And if it just so happens that sanctuary involves melting a few faces or changing the world with one great rock show, then in the words of AC/DC (and Dewey Finn), I say: For those about to rock, I salute you.
Follow Jalen on Letterboxd at www.letterboxd.com/jalenmaki182/ to see what he’s been watching, and read more at www.medium.com/@jalenmaki.