20 Years Ago, Jack Black Absolutely Peaked With One Perfect Movie
He’ll always be great, but this was — and remains — the masterclass of Jack Black's brilliance.
At the heart of Jack Black’s outsized persona is a seemingly antithetical but complementary combination of countercultural rebelliousness and child-like sweetness. The funnyman is a rock and roll stoner with a heart of gold, a big old teddy bear who kids love because Black is so obviously an overgrown kid himself. This charm is, essentially, his entire schtick, assuming we’re not counting his more serious turns in films like Margot at the Wedding. When we think of Jack Black, we think of the guy putting on that mix tape and dancing like a maniac in High Fidelity. This childish, yet edgy persona made him perfect for the lead role of Dewey Finn in the 2003 cult classic School of Rock, which, somehow, turned twenty on October 3, 2003. And, to this day, this remains the best most Jack Black-est moment in the culture, ever. Here’s what’s aged well, what hasn’t aged well, and why this is still a great film to watch with your (older) kids.
In case it’s been a while, here’s how this movie goes: Dewey is a slacker who never grew up or abandoned his rock and roll dreams even when they led him straight into the gutter. The film opens with Dewey at an all-time low. He’s kicked out of his band for twenty-minute solos, stage dives that are dangerous for him and the audience alike, and all-around showboating. Things aren’t any better on the home front. He’s been mooching off his long-suffering pal and former bandmate Ned Schneebly (The White Lotus creator Mike White, who also wrote the screenplay) forever, much to the aggravation of Ned’s shrewish girlfriend Patty Di Marco (Sarah Silverman).
School of Rock is a big-hearted comedy with love, empathy, and compassion for everyone other than Silverman’s character, who is never anything other than a misogynistic caricature of an emasculating, ball-busting harridan. If there’s one part of the movie that doesn’t work, it’s the writing of Patty. Silverman, is, of course, great in the role, it’s just hard to buy that this person exists as written. Patty convinces her weak-willed boyfriend to give his pal the old heave-ho but when he intercepts a call for Ned offering him a substitute teacher position at an elite prep school the down-on-his-luck rocker decides that if he can’t continue to stay at Ned’s house, he can pretend to be Ned for the sake of scoring his sweet, sweet six hundred and fifty dollar a week paycheck.
This marks perhaps the first and only time in film history, or outside of it, that anyone has gotten into teaching solely for the money.
Dewey at first treats his new job as a substitute teacher like a grift. As an unlikely educator, he initially seems mostly concerned with avoiding work and nursing a massive hangover. That all changes when he sees his kids play music. The cynical slacker becomes an idealist overnight as well as a passionate evangelist for what he sees as the one and only true religion: rock and roll.
For the sake of authenticity the wonderfully natural, refreshingly non-precocious child actors actually play their instruments, as does Black, who is a rock star in his spare time as half of Tenacious D. In an act at once adorable and wildly unethical, Dewey decides to transform his students into his ultimate backing band, albeit one that couldn’t actually get into many of the venues where rock is performed on account of being underage.
Dewey forms a powerful connection with pupils he assigns roles involving the band. The students are separated into musicians backup singers security, and, most controversially, groupies. (Really!) Three girls are singled out for groupie duty and while Dewey insists that groupies are like cheerleaders for bands the sharp-witted Summer “Tinkerbell" Hathaway (Miranda Cosgrove, who went on to be the most successful of the child actors thanks to her lead role in iCarly) knows damn well that the phrase generally refers to nubile young women who offer a more sordid and less wholesome form of support.
This is one of several places where School of Rock feels dated and in questionable taste. The final area where School of Rock betrays its age is in its portrayal of Billy (Brian Falduto), the band’s fussy, theatrical stylist. There’s nothing mean-spirited or homophobic about the character or the performance but he is unmistakably a caricature of young gay men as effeminate, fancy (Dewey’s nickname for him is “Fancy Pants”), and obsessed with fashion.
Dewey has the band practice away from the prying eyes and ears of teachers and a Principal (Joan Cusack as Rosalie "Roz" Mullins) who might wonder why his class spends all their time immersing themselves in the exciting, adult world of rock and roll instead of learning reading, writing, and arithmetic. This, more or less works, even if it feels unrealistic. Then again, many kids’ lives in schools have been changed by their extracurricular activities and not their actual schooling. So, what School of Rock gets wrong in nitty-gritty realism it makes up for in the broad strokes.
Black has a wonderful ease with the child actors. His gentle, supportive presence brings out the best in them and they bring out the best in him. Dewey isn’t just doling out lessons in rocking and rock history; he’s teaching his students to love and accept themselves no matter what they look like or who they are.
School of Rock is shockingly conventional for a renegade like director Richard Linklater. It is an underdog misfit teacher crowd-pleaser with a rock and roll twist that climaxes, inevitably and predictably, at a battle of the bands where Dewey and his group of pint-sized music-makers compete against the band that kicked him out for being too much even for a rock band. Basically, Linklater made a musical version of Bad News Bears for a new generation. He even made a proper remake of Bad News Bears just a few years later with Billy Bob Thornton in the Walter Matthau role. But where Matthau’s boozy, profane coach is profanely cynical, Black exudes pure joy. In School of Rock, he’s nothing less than the pure, life-affirming spirit of rock and roll.
No movie before or since has made such inspired use of Black’s unique and impressive skillset. That includes his scene-stealing turn as Bowser in this year’s smash hit video game adaptation The Super Mario Bros. Movie. The closest any film has come to doing justice to Black in his entirety is 2011’s Bernie, which reunited Black with Linklater for the darkly comic yet bizarrely warm and friendly true-life tale of a mortician with a golden voice who is so beloved in his home town that he can kill a mean old woman without anybody particularly minding.
Linklater and Black make for a terrific team. It’d be neat if they worked together again but there’s certainly something to be said for going out on top and School of Rock and Bernie both leap deliriously from one giddy high to another. For now, if you were childless when School of Rock came out two decades ago (likely) and you’ve got a rock-curious kid right now, this is one modern comedy masterpiece that still rocks.