[box cover]

The School of Rock

From Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin through Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, and Jim Carrey, every society gets the comics it deserves with one or two shining talents emerging as their decade's iconic funnymen. It's far too early to say whether Jack Black will fill that role soon, but his breakout performance in The School of Rock (2003) resonated with audiences in the same manner as Steve Martin's turn in The Jerk and Bill Murray's in Caddyshack. A little bit hyper, a little bit rock 'n roll, Black's shtick is a combination of false, blustering ego and PG-rated crudity. Having slowly come to the public's attention through his appearances on TV's "Mr. Show" and via his rock-parody duo Tenacious D — as well as perfectly rendered secondary roles in films like Mars Attacks! and High Fidelity — Black has frequently been compared to John Belushi, mainly because of his surprisingly athletic physical grace. But the charismatic Black also reminds one of Belushi in the way he exhibits an impish sweetness beneath his bigger-than-life persona. Of course, Black got lucky with School of Rock — the film was written specifically for him by Mike White (The Good Girl) and directed by Richard Linklater, giving the movie a pedigree far more advanced than most entries in the genre. As to whether his star power increases with time or he flounders in a string of weak copycat "loser rock guy" comedies, only time will tell. But School of Rock is a flat-out hilarious film and Black, in his first starring role, owns it with the confidence of a generational icon. A rock-and-roll wash-out, unemployed and booted from his third-rate band, Dewey Finn (Black) just wants to rawk. His childhood friend, substitute teacher Ned Schneebley (White) lets Dewey crash on the floor of his apartment — much to the consternation of Ned's shrewish girlfriend (Sarah Silverman) — while Dewey insists that his slacker lifestyle has philosophical merit ("I serve society by rocking!"). When Dewey takes a phone call meant for Ned about a high-paying sub position, Dewey sees it as a chance to pick up the money he needs to pay his back rent and put together some musicians for an upcoming "Battle of the Bands" contest. Passing himself off as "Mr. Schneebly" at a tony private school, Dewey tosses aside the lesson plan when he discovers that his ten-year-old charges are musically gifted, and thus turns the class into a crash-course in rock-and-roll. As Dewey gets to know the kids — the grade-fixated overachiever, the shy classical pianist, the awkward guitar player with the domineering dad — he teaches them a few things about AC/DC and the Ramones, but he also learns a little bit about caring for other people, too. He helps the uptight principal (the always hilarious Joan Cusack) come out of her shell and acknowledge her inner Stevie Nicks, and he finally leads his newly minted, pre-teen rockers to their inevitable public performance at the big rock-off.

*          *          *

The School of Rock has a fairly formulaic script, but each step of the plot is crafted with such intelligence and warmth by White and Linklater that one barely notices the predictable structure — and it's so startlingly funny that nothing matters but the ride. A genuine "family film" with appeal for adults and kids alike (the PG-13 rating, for "rude humor and drug references," is utterly ridiculous since the movie is more squeaky-clean than most television sitcoms), The School of Rock is one of only a handful of movies in recent memory that grants kids the respect they deserve, neither turning them into midget adults with preternatural wit or treating them as adorable, angelic urchins. Black's young charges play their own instruments — several were found via casting calls at music camps — and do their own singing, and they even manage to hold their own as actors alongside the bigger-than-life Black, who generously allows them their own share of laughs. While grown-ups will get the music references and laugh at Black's manic inventiveness, younger viewers will get a kick out of the plot, in which a class full of nerdy musicians become full-fledged rockers. Linklater's direction is flawless — this is certainly his funniest film so far — and White's screenplay turns the whole Stand by Me/Dead Poets Society construct on its ear. Paramount's DVD release of The School of Rock includes an anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with excellent color saturation and great contrast, while the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is solid — The School of Rock, despite its title and subject matter, isn't a very music-heavy film and the audio does justice to what's primarily a dialogue-driven soundtrack. There are two commentary tracks on board — the first, with Linklater and Black, is surprisingly dull, with the pair making rather uninspired small talk mostly about the work they did to get the film produced and offering very little in the way of scene-specific tech-talk or anecdotes. Surprisingly, the second "Kids Kommentary" is a lot more fun, with the younger actors making fun of their on-screen selves ("Listen to me! I sound like Mickey Mouse!" groans drummer Kevin Clark, whose adolescent voice has deepened since filming), sharing funny stories about Black, and ribbing each other relentlessly. There's a standard behind-the-scenes featurette, "Lessons Learned in the School of Rock," a music video for the film's set-piece rock number, a rather tedious "MTV Diary" episode following Black, and a cute feature showcasing camcorder footage shot by the kids when they attended the Toronto Film Festival. There's also an amusing piece shot by Linklater and Black during the film's production, with Black using a theater full of extras to help beg Led Zeppelin to allow them to use "Immigrant Song" in the film. A DVD-ROM "Chalkboard of Rock" feature offers up Jack Black's favorite bands plus an extensive, interactive musical family tree similar to the one used by Dewey in the film, with optional commentary by Linklater and Black. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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