Thank God that Linklater, (director of Slackers and the nearly surrealistic Waking Life) isn’t right all the time; he’s the unlikely creator of this gleeful lunacy which totally avoids any trace of the two qualities mentioned so piously in his quote. The director blends an encyclopedic knowledge of pop music with prepubescent innocence and the manic energy of Jack Black in a beguiling concoction sure to make this auteur and his leading man bankable for years to come.
School proves it; Hollywood now possesses a worthy successor to John Belushi. Jack Black, who’s been working for years in various and sundry supporting roles, (and finally reached prominence in High Fidelity), has his first leading role here–and he doesn’t so much dominate the movie as own it. As Dewey Finn, washed-up guitarist for a mediocre rock group, Black brings his no-holds-barred style to a character that suits him perfectly; a not too bright but fully grown adolescent who’s making his way through life by “acting out”. When Dewey gets canned from his band, he assumes the identity of Ned Schneebly, his nerdy roommate who ekes out a living as a substitute teacher. Blustering his way into an elite private school run by the deliciously uptight Joan Cusack, Black, (as Ned) encounters a pack of 10 year-old upper-class geeks far too eager to inhabit the lives their parents have so carefully laid out for them.
Black doesn’t know squat about anything but rock and roll, to which he’s committed with mesmerizing ferocity, but little skill. His students bore him until he discovers, via their music class, that a few of them possess enough talent to justify their teacher’s persistent dream of winning an up-coming “Battle of the Bands”. But can he get seduce the kids into going along with his scheme? Can he turn this polyglot pack of nascent tight-asses into a hard-driving, rockin’ bunch of dudes? This being Hollywood, you can just bet Black’s chubby ass he can.
The fun here comes from Black’s over-the-top performance and the manner in which the kids react to this Rasputin of rock ‘n roll. Eyes ablaze with maniacal intensity, words boiling up out of his overloaded belly, Black proceeds to infect his students and the audience with such physical lunacy that it’s easy to miss parts of a very clever screenplay. A wealth of rock minutia roars by, propelled by Black’s machine-gun delivery; part of the joy in watching this movie occurs when you realize that you’re
comparing notes with Black’s incessant ratings of his musical giants. (There’s a wonderful montage in which Black charts some rock lacunae the way a physics professor diagrams a nuclear reaction.)
It’s totally juvenile of course, but of that rare variety which slides the viewer into the Huck Finn Syndrome, in which a kidnapped audience comes to justify skipping school to enjoy all those guilty pleasures society frowns on. Like Belushi in Animal House, (to which Black pays homage in a number of ways) gleeful anarchy becomes a thing of beauty here–but there’s a beguiling sweetness present too, in the way Black brings out the nascent talent of his suppressed charges and the inclusive manner in which he induces the kids without musical ability to contribute their own unique talents to his “class project”.
In this determinedly hip-hop age of pop music, it’s nice to see homage paid to some of the legends of the not-so-distant past. Who said real rock and roll is dead?
P.S. If you leave before the screen goes dark, you’ll miss a sly fade-out that makes sitting through those interminable credits well worth it.