There are two dominant beats in play for the duration of School of Rock, the 2003 crowd-pleasing box office comedy smash. Most visible and memorable is frontman Jack Black.
But just behind him, keeping perfect time and setting the thumping beat of the show is filmmaker Richard Linklater. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the music they make together is mighty good.
It's got a driving bass line with clever hooks, like the best classic rock. Maybe you could even dance to it. (Why not?) Yet, from the vantage of point of ten-plus years later, it's been easy to forget and/or dismiss the true triumphs of the film.
Jack Black stars as Dewey Finn, a local struggling rocker singularly focused on making it big. He's convinced that he will win the local Battle of the Bands competition, and then his ship will come in. But, he's also spectacularly lazy, expecting success to stage dive into his lap on account of how awesome he thinks he is.
His bandmates disagree, unceremoniously throwing him out. His roommate, a nebbish substitute teacher (Mike White) also disagrees, as Dewey is unable to pay his part of the rent. And his roommate's shrewish girlfriend (Sarah Silverman) most emphatically disagrees, having run out of patience for Dewey long before the movie even started.
Dewey, though, knows opportunity when he sees it. When his roommate gets a call for a longterm substitute teaching gig, Dewey, out of desperation and sheer brass-ring-grabbing gusto, opts to assume his identity and take the gig. No experience, no qualifications, no clue. It's seat of the pants identity theft played for laughs, all forgivable because we like this big galoot.
But, teaching school? No problem, as it turns out. The private prep school he infiltrates happens to be run by the most dimwitted principal (Joan Cusack, as fantastically perfect as Jack Black) on this side of Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
Once in the classroom, it isn't long before Dewey (now going by his roommate's name, Ned Schneebly) foists his rock n' roll dreams onto the kids. One will be lead guitar. One will be drummer. Some leftovers will be background singers and swag vendors. The smartest girl in the room will be pacified in the role of band manager. And so on. They will become awesome, and they must win the Battle of the Bands. School becomes an all day/every day secret rock n' roll prep academy, albeit headed up by the world's most lovable and magnetic anarchist.
It all goes quite well in the end. (Of course). Dewey finds a new calling, the kids become beloved rockers, and rock n' roll is assured to live on for another generation. The tightly-wound principal might even get to keep her job. It might sound pat, but it's the right ending for this movie. It all added up to an infectious hit, launching Jack Black up the superstar charts. But was School of Rock a kind of one hit wonder?
In today's noisy pop culture mesh, School of Rock has arguably evolved into forms like no other movie has. Yet, the cinematic source material has been strangely relegated to footnote status; a springboard for a live Broadway adaptation, an Emmy-nominated Nickelodeon sitcom entirely for kids, and a franchise of actual "School of Rock"-branded extracurricular rock n' roll schools. (To be fair, Linklater's film is supposedly based in part on an actual such school, its controversial teacher and students the subject of the 2005 documentary film Rock School.)
(Writer's note: Should someone prove me wrong about the current fate of the film, I wouldn't mind at all. If it turns out that, say, it's been playing on an endless loop on Nickelodeon since '05 and it's quietly everyone's second favorite film after A Christmas Story, all the better.)
But honestly - can anything truly be School of Rock without Jack Black? Looking back at the 2003 film, the most obvious thing about it is how perfectly it functions as a breakout role for the actor. It is, without hyperbole, one of the few great Hollywood star vehicles of the new millennium.
Mike White's laser-focused screenplay served it all up on a vinyl platter: a role that utilized Black's edgy musician persona (having already been part of the ongoing raunchy rock comedy duo Tenacious D), his acerbic wit (displayed uproariously in High Fidelity a few years earlier), and his manic energy, all in the interest of an across-the-board comedy in which he primarily shared the screen with a classroom of kids.
The kids, by the way, are quite alright. The fact that none of the very talented group went on to greater stardom signifies nothing in terms of their presence and performances in the film itself. Not terribly long ago, Entertainment Weekly reunited Jack Black with his now-grown co-stars. If memory serves, most, if not all of them, had no long term acting aspirations anyhow. More power to them if School of Rock, as fine as it is, doesn't end up as the apex of their lives.
It is Linklater who parlayed the success of this film into other successful film projects, most of them more openly artistic in nature. While it's not fair to say that School of Rock isn't a personal work for Linklater - clearly it suits his rebellious streak of having infiltrated an establishment, only to then do his own thing with it - it's interesting to observe that he's thought of primarily for having directed Dazed & Confused, Boyhood, and the "Before" trilogy.
Any other director would likely be known as "the maker of School of Rock" had they done as fine a job with it. Linklater's avoidance in making a career out of School of Rock is a pretty rock n' roll thing to do. Like Dewey Finn, he's now running his own school. So to speak.
All these years later, School of Rock continues to work as well as ever. While the prospect of a stranger worming his way into your kid's classroom completely undetected is a lot more terrifying today than that it was in 2003, it's clear that that aspect of the premise, flimsy even then, is played entirely for laughs. The original tunes they come up with in the movie are decent, and the classic rock soundtrack is, if anything, all the more apt in today's Guardians of the Galaxy culture.
Somehow, both Jack Black and Richard Linklater are perfectly at home here, even if it's a home they'd both wander away from. Several years later, they'd re-team for Bernie, an equally satisfying but entirely different encore. School of Rock, though, is the springboard that propelled them from “up and coming” to the big time. There's nothing quite like watching a movie's triumphant arc parallel that of its star and it's director, and do it so effortlessly. A star is born. Boom.
As Dewey Finn might put it, that's why the legend of this film was way hardcore!!!