Jack Black is very funny. He steals movies where he has supporting parts like High Fidelity, and his performance with Will Ferrell at the Oscars was the highlight of a very predictable awards show. Black's persona is a fascinating paradox; I like the oxymoron that Entertainment Weekly recently created for him: the frenetic slacker. Black's characters seem to be very passionate, but that energy is reserved for activities that seem to serve little "productive" value in our current economic order. Hence Barry, the part-time clerk who puts in full-time hours at Championship Vinyl in High Fidelity and berates customers whose tastes he finds offensive.
Where the lead character Rob comes to the realization that emotionally he's been living in an extended adolescent state and opts to grow up, Barry - and the Black persona more generally -- represents those dudes who, into their thirties, still behave like college sophomores. Richard Linklater, whose breakthrough film, Slackers, depicted the life of twenty-somethings refusing to wholly buy into the workforce system, would seem an ideal choice to direct Black in School of Rock. Here Black plays Dewey Finn, a guitar player still dreaming of the big break, forgetting the Clash's famous dictum, "if you " ve been trying for years, we already heard your song." Dewey is threatened by his roommate Ned and Ned's girlfriend with eviction if he doesn't pay his share of the rent, but Dewey simply shrugs off the threat by believing his group will win this year's battle of the bands. Dewey doesn't even get along with his other band mates: his solos are out of control, he mugs annoyingly to the crowd, and even does stupid frat boy stunts like diving into the crowd mid-song.
For this, his band dumps him. Desperate, Dewey pretends to be Ned and gets a job at an exclusive private elementary school. Because the children are generally type A students, they expect to learn, while Dewey is mainly interested in his paycheck; he wants to give them recess until their injured teacher returns. But soon, Dewey learns that the children are learning music, and creates a "school project" - Rock Band - in order for him to create a group to compete in the battle of the bands. School of Rock's plot is not very original. The parents' dislike of rock music resembles the grown-ups' attitudes in countless early rock and roll film "classics" like Mister Rock and Roll or Don't Knock the Rock, and like in those earlier films, the closed minds are opened by the end of the film.
The "unconventional-but inspirational teacher" theme is also highly familiar; School of Rock could easily be called Dead Rockers Society, among other titles (Goodbye, Mr. Potato Chips? ). The outsider who steps into a straight-laced social order and turns things around had one of its more successful turns in the nineties with the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle, Sister Act, where Whoopi's "Sister Mary Clarence," hiding in a convent from a killer whom she witnessed in the act, shakes up the nunnery with her devotional soul music. Generally speaking the positive reviews the film received centered around Mike White's well-written script, Linklater's touches of realism in what is essentially a fairy tale, and Black's charm, including his rapport with the generally strong child cast (most of the band members were hired for their musical talents first; some of them had never acted before).
This is all true, as far as I am concerned. For me, what's interesting about School of Rock is not its relationship to countless other fish-out-of-water films, or even necessarily its relationship to other rock and roll films. It's what I call the rock and roll rhetoric, the social assumptions about rock music that those who love it assert as a means of justifying their interest in it. According to Rock and Roll Rhetoric, rock sets you free from conformity, from boredom, even from the everyday, nine-to-five world. Rock and roll, Dewey tells the kids, is about "stick in' it to the Man." The Man, Dewey says, is responsible for creating the social world that doesn't find any value in what slackers like Finn want to do.
What is ironic is that the children Dewey teaches are The Man, or rather, their parents are. They pay more for one year of fifth grade than many parents can afford to send their children to college for four years. They are surely better educated, at ten, than Dewey is. One girl, Summer, is a classic type A personality who lands the part of "band manager" as part of the project and by the end of the film is negotiating appearances for the group. The only way we can talk about these kids as outsiders is in terms of their age: they do what they are told, wear the standard uniforms, and keep their spaces need and orderly. The fact that they don't have any "real" rock influences is partly a product of their social class, but it is also the result of age: at ten, one is only beginning to discover one's musical tastes.
Dewey gives the kids CD's and makes them watch videos to inspire them, celebrating the glory of rock: especially noticeable are images of two of the more aggressively chaotic performers in rock history, the Who's guitarist Pete Townshend and drummer Keith Moon. Dewey's love of rock and roll is obvious, even as he manipulates the kids for purposes of winning the competition's cash prize. Ultimately, the band, the "School of Rock," performs at the competition, having deceived the promoter into believing the kids are dying, and win acceptance from their parents - and Dewey wins the admiration of his roommate, who dumps his government-worker (and Dewey-hater) girlfriend and sets up the School of Rock after-school music program in their apartment (whether Ned quits his day job as a substitute teacher is unclear). It's a funny fairy tale, but the contradictions concerning the rock and roll rhetoric are numerous. In 2004, rock and roll is no longer about rebellion; for over forty years it has been the predominant form of popular music - it sells fast food, mass-market jeans, stereo equipment, and movie soundtracks. Rebellion has long been packaged as a consumer lifestyle: witness the James Dean posters, heavy metal magazines like Revolver, and countless ads which tell us that buying brand-name clothing is, as Bill Watterson's Calvin put it, is the American way to express individuality.
School of Rock cannot escape this: its main advertisement used the logo from Rolling Stone magazine, the dominant bi-weekly of the boomer culture which claimed rock music as its own, whose move from San Francisco to New York symbolized the shift from counter cultural to mainstream media publication (for its twentieth anniversary issue, the magazine offered reprints of the first issue; when the first issue was published, buyers were treated to a free roach clip). Its soundtrack is for sale through Atlantic Records, once an important independent source of early R&B and soul records but for over thirty years part of the Warner Entertainment conglomerate today known as AOL Time Warner. It is without question the product of a culture industry that packages rebellion in a pleasant and entertaining manner. Rock and roll, even stick-it-to-the-man rock and roll, is just another commodity for youth to use to establish identity. Thirty years ago mainstream record labels were touting slogans like "The Man Can't Bust Our Music" and "The Revolution is on CBS." School of Rock, despite its obvious charm and great performances, is part of that same tradition. The Rock and Roll Rhetoric prevails again, hollow like an old bass drum..