Rock Your Heart Out

Jack Black scores in 'School of Rock'--one of this year's best.

Ever since his breakthrough role in High Fidelity, Jack Black's film record has been spotty, at best.

The Farrelly Brothers made him get a stupid haircut for the sub-par Shallow Hal, and Dennis Dugan and company paid him a million bucks to act like an asshole in the lousy Saving Silverman. He did get some decent moments in Orange County, but that was more of an extended cameo than bona fide role.

Now comes School of Rock, the definitive Jack Black movie for those who can't get enough of the man (a mass of people I count myself among). As Dewey Finn, a garage band outcast who insists his only duty on the planet is to rock hard, he gets the perfect vehicle to demonstrate his comic and musical talent. He's an unrelenting freight train of spastic dancing, frantic eyeball movement and gleeful shrieks. As of this date, it stands with Bill Murray's work in Lost in Translation as one of the year's best male performances.

When Dewey gets kicked out of his band with the rent due, he becomes desperate. His substitute-teacher roommate, Ned (Mike White, who also wrote the film specifically for Black), tells him time is running out, and he'd better get a job. Dewey finds employment, albeit illegally, by masquerading as teacher Ned at a prestigious elementary school where the students pay $15,000 a year and must don uniforms.

It only takes a few seconds of school time for Dewey to steal a student's lunch and declare all-day recess. In between naps, he catches a glimpse of his students at music class, and many of them appear to be quite accomplished. From that point on, his class becomes an extended lesson in the ways of rock. Dewey forms an all-new rock group with the kids as his musical backing, his sights set on the big battle of the bands and a $20,000 paycheck.

While the film is basically about rocking, and it does rock so hard, it also has a sweet story about coming out of one's shell. The students transform from depressed, suffocated socialites to balls-out, socially adjusted rock machines, thanks to the unbridled influence of the greatest substitute teacher in the world. Sure, Dewey should be doing some hard time for his actions, but the general good nature of the story will have most forgiving the film's occasional implausibility.

For the child cast, Director Richard Linklater searched the country for kids who could act and play instruments. He's got them in kids like Joey Gaydos, a 12-year-old guitar playing protégé who is quite remarkable considering his age. The kid can play, and Black's joy in being around such talent is infectious. When the group performs "School of Rock" at the climactic band battle, and AC/DC's "It's a Long Way to the Top" over the credits, they have the appearance of a real band with true chemistry. I found myself wishing they would tour.

In the role of the tight-assed school principal, Joan Cusack looks like she's delivering a one-note performance, until about two thirds through the movie, where she reveals that there is far more to her character than initially perceived. Black and Cusack prove a good pairing, especially during a scene where Dewey convinces the principal to allow a field trip by seducing her with beer and a jukebox.

This is a true triumph for Black, who is seemingly allowed to do anything his heart desires in this film. (His next project looks to be the story of Tenacious D, his remarkably good, gloriously obscene acoustic rock band.) Credit White and Linklater for coming up with the perfect premise for one of the funniest men in the world. I walked away from School of Rock with a big-assed grin on my face, making it easily one of the year's best, most enjoyable films.

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