My 100 Favourite Films In Review – Number 62, School of Rock

62) School of Rock:
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What teenager hasn’t had their music phase? I mean the phase where you get your hands on an instrument, take a few lessons and become convinced you’re going to be a rock star one day. Okay, I’m guessing quite a few. And the ones that actually keep on with music usually had already started playing it when they were children. I myself learned keyboard back home when I was six. Then when we moved, they didn’t teach it anymore and so I lost it. The keyboard is still there in the house though. I did go through another music phase when I was thirteen though. I bought an instrument, got some lessons from a nifty music channel on the TV, and was convinced I was going to join a band for all of eight months. The reason? Well of course it’s the 2003 love letter to classic rock music – and a hallmark of many childhoods in the early 2000s. I only recently found out that its director was Richard Linklater – some ten years before his Oscar-winning Boyhood was released. Everyone knows this story and everyone loves it, so let’s go right on in.

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We open – as all movies about musicians should – with a performance. Well actually first we get to see some creative opening credits (you’re in my good books already, Mr Linklater). We see a band called No Vacancy performing in a bar in front of a dwindling crowd. The band themselves aren’t exactly bad. It’s just one member – the lead guitarist Dewey Finn (Jack Black). His playing is fine. His performance? It’s a sight to behold. Dewey is like one of those hopeless auditionees for a TV talent show. He’s one of those drunken idiots who gets up to sing karaoke and thinks they’re Idina Menzel. He’s Tommy Wiseau in…well Tommy Wiseau in anything at all.

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After Dewey does a stage dive onto one person in the crowd, we cut to him hung over in bed the next morning. We also meet his roommate Ned, played by the film’s screenwriter Mike White. He was apparently inspired to write the film when he actually roomed on the same floor Jack Black – who frequently blared rock music and streaked in the halls. Ned is a bit of a pushover and has been letting Dewey stay on his floor. But his controlling harpy of a girlfriend…

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Sarah Silverman? Sarah Silverman is the mean shrewish girlfriend? Well that’s certainly different. Anyway, despite her abusive tendencies, you actually do feel a bit sorry for her character Patty. The movie never says whether Patty lives in the apartment too, but she does kind of have a point about Dewey’s endless mooching. Ned doesn’t seem to have a problem with it, but if she lives there too then you understand her ideas. She gets Ned to tell Dewey that he should start paying rent. Hmm, methinks the movie should have opened with this song instead.

Dewey’s day doesn’t get much better when he goes to band practice, and discovers that the other guys have voted him out. They have a point too – given Dewey’s embarrassing antics on stage. So now at about six minutes into the movie, we’ve established Dewey as an unsympathetic comedy protagonist. He is a dick and a loser, and the movie is building both towards him getting a healthy dose of karma and learning to mature. So it’s pretty much a proto-Despicable Me but with rock music.

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Bonus points for both featuring this little lady.

When Dewey gets home, he has to take a call for Ned – who works as a substitute teacher by the way. It’s from Rosalie Mullins (Joan Cusack), principal of Horace Green Prep School. One of the teachers broke her leg before school this morning, and they need a sub ASAP. Dewey also hears that they pay their teachers $650 a week. No, he wouldn’t…

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Oh dear Jesus.

Well this is absolutely going to end in tears, lawsuits, much anger and probably more lawsuits. Dewey is put in front of a class full of very prestigious ten-year-olds. But these child prodigies are greeted by a ‘teacher’ who tells them he’s hung over and doesn’t feel like speaking too much. I should probably take an aside to tell you all that I went to school in Ireland and even the teachers here didn’t pull that kind of stuff. We’re also introduced to the resident teacher’s pet of the class, Summer Hathaway. She’s played by Miranda Cosgrove, in her first big role before making it big playing the demon spawn of Satan in Drake & Josh.

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We’re shown a hilarious scene of Ms Mullins disciplining and young girl and then terrifying her by offering a hug. It seems that Ms Mullins is a few steps away from snapping under the stress of being the principal – which is what I’m going to tell myself to justify why she doesn’t cop onto Dewey’s antics right away. Speaking of Dewey, he actually does teach the kids something in his next class: about ‘the man’. Although that slang term is more associated with the 90s, it actually goes back to the 1960s – which makes a lot of sense, given the anti-authority nature of hippie culture. Dewey appears to be quite bitter that he hasn’t made it because of his art, and he resents Ned and his friends for ‘selling out’. The tone of the movie also makes it quite clear that Dewey is talking out of his ass for the most part. But he finally gets a burst of inspiration when he overhears the kids in their music class.

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The kiddies file back into class afterwards to find a load of instruments set up, and their teacher with a plan. I feel as though we should also take the time to introduce each of these particular children.

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Zack – shy but determined guitar player. Dewey puts him in the role of lead guitarist.

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Lawrence – even shyer piano player. He’s put on keyboard.

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Katie – quiet cello player, and probably the child who gets the least amount of focus. Dewey puts her as the bassist.

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Freddy – hyper-active loudmouth who supplies percussion. Dewey gives him two sticks and makes him a drummer.

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Marta and Alicia – two talented girls with good singing voices. Dewey makes them back-up singers (putting himself as the lead singer of course).

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Billy – the camp and fabulous dude who asks to be the band’s stylist.

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Gordon, Marco and Tomika – Dewey makes them roadies.

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Frankie and Leonard – they’re made security.

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Michelle and Eleni – Dewey calls them ‘groupies’, but media team is probably a better phrase to use. He makes Summer one as well.

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Dewey tells the kids that an upcoming Battle of the Bands is a school competition – and a win will go on their permanent record. While he’s obviously lying, winning a band competition with a group assembled by the kids themselves would actually look good on a resume – extracurricular activities and all that. Summer actually offers to be a singer as well, but she’s terrible. Miranda Cosgrove is actually quite a good singer, and had to take a forty-minute lesson on how to sing badly.

At lunch, Lawrence tells Dewey that he doesn’t think he should be in the band – as he’s not cool enough. Dewey shows that he’s not a bad motivator, as he convinces him that he does belong. After lunch, Dewey assigns everyone their roles. But more importantly, he gives everyone catchy nicknames:

  • Zack – Zack Attack
  • Katie – Posh Spice
  • Lawrence – Mr Cool
  • Freddie – Spazzy Magee
  • Marta – Blondie
  • Alicia – Brace Face
  • Tomika – Turkey Sub
  • Billy – Fancy Pants
  • Gordon – Road Runner
  • Leonard – Short Stop
  • Frankie – Tough Guy
  • Marco – Carrot Top
  • Summer – Tinker Bell

Poor Michelle and Eleni don’t get nicknames, sad face.

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They do however get the task of naming the band. Summer is still unhappy with her job – so Dewey makes her the band manager. And for a child prodigy like her, that’s incredibly fitting. And think how good that’ll look on her resume when she says she managed a band at the age of ten. For the rest of the day, Dewey first demonstrates the song he expects them to play. He then gives the kids some pointers on performance technique. Essentially he tells them to bring the ham. After class, Tomika approaches him and says she wants to be a singer. In contrast to Summer…well…

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You get the idea.

Needless to say, Tomika gets to be the third singer. The next day as he comes into the parking lot, Dewey witnesses Zack getting yelled at by his father. So he uses today’s lesson to subtly teach the kid to stand up for himself. He also earns major cred from the other teachers when Zack comes up to him at lunch and thanks him for the lesson. Now it’s time for a fun montage showing the kids taking inspiration for their particular acts. Afterwards, Katie the bass player even gets a couple of lines.

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As well as getting to make this face.

Ms Mullins now announces to the teachers that parents’ night is on the way, and they should over-prepare. Dewey wonders to the other teachers if the principal is always so uptight – and they relate that one time she let her hair down. It involved getting drunk and singing Stevie Nicks – which I’m sure is going to come into play later. But now Dewey has to sneak some of the kids out of the school to audition for Battle of the Bands. They end up late thanks to Freddie wandering off – giving Dewey a chance to do some actual disciplining. But Summer comes up with an ingenious idea to get them into the contest anyway – tell the judges they’re all terminal.

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And so are their kittens!

You have to admit, Summer’s “I didn’t do it for the grade” moment in the van with Dewey is going to make you smile. Things keep on going well, when Michelle and Eleni finally come up with a name for the band.

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Someone found out how to rewind to the opening titles.

For the first time in three weeks, Ms Mullins decides to walk into Dewey’s class and question why there was the sound of music. Really, lady? Now you finally notice? Dewey covers by saying they were learning via singing – a tactic that one usually stops when the children are older than kindergarten. Ms Mullins seems especially uptight today, so Dewey invites her to a bar. And he plays some Stevie Nicks on the jukebox. Once the principal has some alcohol in her, Dewey persuades her to agree to let him take the kids on a trip (really to the Battle of the Bands, given there’s no chance of him sneaking them out again). Things get a little tender between the two as she reveals that she used to be fun – before pressure from the parents turned her into a…

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Billy has now come up with his first designs for the band’s stage costumes. Unfortunately, what he went with would make George Clooney take the nipple-suit in a heartbeat. Billy sarcastically suggests they just wear variations of their uniforms – which is actually not a bad idea since they have ‘school’ in their title. It also turns out that Zack has written a song on his own. And it’s pretty good. Dewey now has to worry about parents’ night. He also has to worry about Ned finally finding out the ruse. Sure enough, he spills the beans to Patty – who calls the cops on Dewey. A tad excessive if you ask me, and goodness knows what harm Patty does to the school’s reputation with that little stunt. Dewey doesn’t help matters when he says a badly phrased line that I didn’t get until many years later.

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Things are at an all-time low for Dewey, as Ned tells him that he wants him to move out at once. But despite this, the children realise that they still learned a lot and their lives were very much improved by the band experience. And the bus is already waiting, so why not go and get their ‘teacher’? After a pep talk from the kids, Dewey agrees. It’s well-timed with Patty and Ned coming home – and this time Patty really has no right to be annoyed. When she hears that Ned wants to go, she demands that he stop being a pushover and stick up for himself. So he slams the door in her face.

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Back at the school, the poor substitute finds her class empty. But let’s face it – she’s probably a little relieved she didn’t have to deal with umpteen ten-year-olds today. Joan Cusack walks into her office filled with angry parents to deliver the best line in the film:

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Even though her cracking up is played for laughs, you do have to feel sorry for the poor woman. She’s in an intense pressure job, with parents who are clearly very demanding. And when they’re coming down on her so hard for the Dewey debacle, she excuses herself for a moment alone – and makes herself stand in the naughty corner.

Once they get to the Battle of the Bands, they find none other than Dewey’s old band playing before them. It’s clear from their performance that they’ve gone for a very safe image. The song is easy-listening, the lead singer has now cut his hair short, the music takes no risks and the whole thing reeks of judge-pleasing. Dewey is inspired to play Zack’s song, even though they haven’t practiced it as much, because it’s simply a better show. It also gives Dewey a chance to demonstrate his character development, and let someone else take centre stage. The parents and Ms Mullins arrive at the venue and are forced to buy tickets to get in. Thus we get.

I can’t quite describe this performance. Well I can of course, but what I mean is that I can’t really describe how good of a payoff this is. The movie has been building to a big set piece like this for exactly 90 minutes. It’s been very careful to not let us see the band performing together as a whole. We’ve only seen snippets of practices and montage shots. So we are essentially in the perspective of the audience. As such, they have the same amazed reactions as we do. More superficially, the song is brilliantly written, brilliantly performed and brilliant to watch. All the children were cast for their prowess on their respective instruments – meaning that they’re not being dubbed, and you’re not watching actors bluffing their way with X months of training. I think that’s part of the reason the movie has been so successful. These kids are good, and they’re a big part of why this performance pays off the movie so well.

They keep cutting to shots of the parents during the performance, and there are plenty of highlights:

  • Zack’s dad’s jaw dropping when he hears his son wrote the song.
  • Tomika’s parents utterly melting when their daughter belts out a powerful verse.
  • Lawrence’s dad complimenting Zack’s.
  • Ms Mullens jumping for joy at the line “kick some ass!”

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Ms Mullens comes backstage and tells Dewey “Mad? I’m furious!” but it’s clear that all is forgiven. She even looks as though she might be making a love connection with one of the guys from No Vacancy. Speaking of whom, they win the contest. A nice touch by Richard Linklater, if you ask me. As Freddie puts it “rock isn’t about getting an A” – and the crowd is clamouring for them. That’s pretty much echoed in every TV talent show ever. How many times after all does the winner go onto have the most successful career?

We wrap things up by showing that Dewey and Ned appear to have turned their apartment into a school for teaching children how to play instruments. Given that Dewey was able to teach a bassist and drummer himself, that’s quite a good education they’re getting. Each bad member gets a solo – except poor Katie – and the movie ends on a high note. But think of their poor teacher’s reactions when she returns to find them three weeks behind on all their coursework.

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So there is the movie that convinced an entire generation of early 2000s kids to pick up instruments and try to be rock stars – this one included. I was the one who had to be different and so I tried my hand at being a bassist. It didn’t quite stick but the bass is still in my house somewhere. It honestly feels like not too long ago when I got the VHS of this for Christmas (yes people; it’s from back when VHS was still the norm) and watched it every other night. It’s a movie that’s impossible not to love in some way, and you can probably credit it with introducing many kids to classic rock music. It’s not exactly the only band movie there is – Band Slam, Rock of Ages, Sing Street – but there is definitely a certain something that makes this one unique. The combination of a good screenplay, a director who knew exactly how to approach it, and a larger-than-life performance by Jack Black just came together to create something that worked unbelievably well. Now that we’re ten years removed from its release, it has officially entered nostalgia territory. So we’ve just got both a Broadway adaptation (fitting, since the film was going to be a straight-up musical anyway) and a reboot TV series. I have yet to watch either, but they seem to be doing well. I’ll leave you with a fun video of the reunion concert. Puberty was very kind to a lot of the kids.

My grades will test your head, and your mind, and your brain.

*Story? One part that might be lost on some viewers is that the movie was the first to parody the ‘inspirational teacher’ story by putting an incompetent fool behind the desk. That formula worked very well with the love letter to classic rock that is the rest of the story. We almost could have seen more of Dewey trying to hide everything from the other teachers. A-

*Characters? Dewey is meant to be unsympathetic at the start, and then grow a conscience as the story goes on – which is translated very well. The kids are all instantly recognisable and memorable – which isn’t easy with such a large group of them. B+

*Performances? Each child playing an instrument or singing was cast for his/her ability in that department – so it’s pretty great how good all the acting from them is. As said above, a large group of children had the potential to be a disaster. But these kids are good. Not merely passable, but good, and so natural. From the adults, Jack Black’s performance is a sight to behold, and it’s clear that he has so much passion for the role. He’ll never be able to top Dewey Finn no matter how hard he tries. Joan Cusack went radically against her usual characters as Ms Mullins, but she was still lots of fun too. A+

*Visuals? The film is getting an A purely for that show at the end, but to a lesser extent it does a good job of giving each child their own distinctive look so that they all stand out. A

*Special Effects? If the light show at the performance counts, that’s another top grade. A

*Anything Else? This is a movie that’s all about celebrating a particular type of music, and it does it beautifully. This is one of the best uses of classic rock in a film you’re ever likely to get. A

It’s time to return to the Master of Suspense, with the Hitchcock terror The Birds next.

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