In honor of the November 7 release of Paste Movies Editor Michael Dunaway’s documentary 21 Years: Richard Linklater (in which Paste is the media partner), we’re going through the indie master’s entire oeuvre in order, film by amazing film.
For much of his career, filmmaker Richard Linklater specialized in “hangout” movies, deceptively loose-structured tales that emphasized texture and personality over tight plotting. Rather than follow the beats of conventional Hollywood scripts, Linklater emulated Robert Altman’s shaggy ensemble pieces and Éric Rohmer low-key character studies.
By 2003, he’d never done a film as formulaic as School of Rock, which wryly sends up the “inspirational teacher” genre while adding some “slob vs. snobs” comedic flourishes. School of Rock was also Linklater’s first star vehicle written around a performer with an established persona. With those ingredients, you might expect merely a paycheck movie, the kind easily overlooked in a filmmaker’s career retrospective. Instead, School of Rock delivers a surprisingly warm, winning comedy with all the elements in the same groove.
Jack Black had been a steadily working comic actor for the decade prior to School of Rock and had his breakthrough role with his scene-stealing supporting turn in High Fidelity. For School of Rock, his neighbor Mike White (an esteemed actor and filmmaker in his own right) wrote a screenplay based on Black’s own head-banging rock fandom. His character of Dewey Finn proves to be a PG-13 version of Black’s “J.B.” persona from Tenacious D, his comedic rock duo with Kyle Gass. Dewey and J.B. are both vainglorious would-be rock gods in love with the most overblown elements of pop music, including heavy metal guitar riffs, scat singing and prog-rock lyrics
In School of Rock, Dewey gets dumped by his band and pressured to pay rent to his roommate, meek substitute teacher Ned Schneebley (White). To raise the money, Dewey impersonates Ned at snooty Horace Green Prep School, despite his lack of experience or interest in shaping young minds. But Dewey has a “Eureka” moment (accompanied by the opening riffs of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love”) when he realizes his class is filled with prodigious young musicians. He assigns his student the class project “Rock Band” so he can spitefully defeat his ex-bandmates in a local Battle of the Bands.
Some of the students are played by young actors—Miranda Cosgrove, the grade-obsessed “band manager,” would go on to to star in the “iCarly” series. Linklater cast many of them as musicians first, seeking their authenticity both in playing their instruments and their adolescent awkwardness. Sharing most of his scenes with young, untrained actors, Black commands the spotlight for virtually the entire film, and his whirling-dervish energy has seldom been used so well on screen.
Dewey’s musical values and uncouth behavior may be silly, but the film shows a surprisingly sincere interest in dramatizing the creative process, with the class room scenes unfolding in long, naturalistic scenes. As Linklater told the Austin Chronicle, “I thought a lot about wanting to show the rehearsal process. A lot of kids want to jump to rockstar status and all the attention that they would get. We expanded a lot of the rehearsals and the way the songs were made to make that part look fun. We wanted to make it look fun to be in a band.”
When Dewey matches young classical musicians to rock instruments and teaching them famous chords from Black Sabbath and The Doors, Black’s unbridled enthusiasm gets plenty of laughs. School of Rock clearly enjoys separating and unifying the component parts of popular songs, and dramatizing musical collaboration—a band experience better, we suspect, than Dewey ever had before.
The film gets plenty of comic mileage of the fact that Dewey isn’t nearly as book smart as his students: “You’re gonna have to use your head, and your brain, and your mind, too,” he tells them. But it’s Dewey who uses his head, brain and mind as he becomes musical mentor, creator of lesson plans and manipulator of an inflexible educational system. (With school music programs being slashed at schools nationwide, School of Rock was ahead of its time.)
School of Rock doesn’t go overboard on the sentimental aspects—it establishes that young guitarist Zach has a controlling, overbearing father without beating the audience over the head with it. And while it advocates giving children a means of self-expression and catharsis, it doesn’t elevate rock music into something more than it should be.
Joan Cusack gives Black the film’s best foil as the school’s high-strung principal, a secret Stevie Nicks fan. Disappointingly, School of Rock fails to give provocative comedian Sarah Silverman anything funny to do as Ned’s mean girlfriend, which seems a waste of talent. The surprisingly heavy-handed gay stereotyping of the band’s costume designer serves as the film’s only other major false note.
Culminating with the band’s irresistible big performance, School of Rock builds to the kind of conclusion common to 1970s sports movies, in which the underdogs enjoy a moral victory without necessarily winning the competition. It’s not surprising Linklater followed the film by remaking of one of its spiritual predecessors, The Bad News Bears.
School of Rock earned more than $130 million worldwide, by far Linklater’s biggest financial success, and gave Black a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical. After more than a decade, a TV version of School of Rock is in the works for Nickelodeon, with Linklater as executive producer.
But the film’s best real-life epilogue occurred with the 10th anniversary cast reunion hosted by the Austin Film Society in 2013. The after party included a performance by Black and his former School of Rock “students.” Online clips showing the former child performers all grown-up feel even more neat and satisfying than the film’s own finale. And it reinforces the idea that, rather than deliver a workmanlike, by-the-numbers comedy, Linklater made School of Rock into a cinematic jam session.
21 Years: Richard Linklater is produced by Tara Wood, Michael Dunaway and Melanie Miller, directed by Dunaway with co-director Tara Wood, and will be released theatrically and on demand through Gravitas Ventures. You can see the trailer and pre-order the film here, and get more info (including links to preview clips) here.