When it came out in 2003, School of Rock was deemed a “sleeper hit”. Though it was obviously intriguing enough to investors, it does sound pretty unremarkable: washed-up musician tries to teach preppy kids how to rock. At the time, the film’s lead, Jack Black, known for his roles in High Fidelity and Shallow Hal, wasn’t an obvious choice for a family movie. However, the film was a huge financial and reasonable critical success. Let’s look at just what School of Rock does right.
At its core, the film has a tight script which utilises conventions and cliches in ways that make sense within the logic of the story. The film begins with a lie: washed-up wannabe rocker, Dewey Finn (Jack Black), poses as a substitute teacher at a private school. This is such basic farce, a common enough plot device; but it often feels cheap because it is so often unbelievable. In School of Rock it works because we already know Finn is a liar. He is quickly introduced as delusional; he stage-dives onto a crowd which is neither plentiful nor enthused enough to catch him. This is then reinforced by dialogue in subsequent scenes – my favourite being “I’m out there on the front lines, liberating people with my music”. He couldn’t be more wrong – so, when he blithely answers the phone with “this is Ned Schneebly”, the audience really just accepts it.
Though Finn’s delusion is central to the plot, what’s wonderful is that his passion for music is equally important. So, again, when Finn gets into his element teaching the children about rock music, it makes sense. Initially, Finn seems so narcissistic that he is his own worst enemy, but he loves music even more than himself, which actually makes him a pretty good teacher. Finn has some lovely one-on-one moments with the children, notably with Lawrence (Robert Tsai) and Tamika (Maryam Hassan) where he helps them with their anxieties about being in the band. Finn finds a way to get the children to come out of their shells without really criticising them.
Finn is not a particularly complex character, but nor should he be; School of Rock is not that kind of film. But Finn’s two well-established traits – his delusion and passion – are integral to the story unfolding in the way that it does. This is not groundbreaking, but it is good writing; it embodies the F. Scott Fitzgerald ethos that “character is plot”. You couldn’t replace Dewey Finn with another character without having to seriously rework the plot points. The story needs the specific character of Dewey Finn.
Just as the story needs Dewey Finn, School of Rock would be nothing without Jack Black. Scriptwriter Mike White was Black’s friend and neighbour and felt that Black hadn’t yet been given “the perfect vehicle for his brand of charisma”. White took Black’s intense love of music, undeniable charm, and inimitable style to breathe life into this reasonably “normal” film. White gave Black an amazing role that allowed Black to be both silly and serious, and challenge him in what he thought he could do.
School of Rock was an important career transition for Black as it proved that he could be a child-friendly star. Jordan-Claire Green, who plays Michelle in the film, stated that her mum was “terrified [Black] would be a terrible influence“, but it turned out Black has a wonderful rapport with children, and his off-screen encouragement is visible in the performances. It’s not hard to imagine that this role was important for Black to then move on to helming the multi-million dollar Kung Fu Panda franchise.
Perhaps the strangest thing about this film is its director. Richard Linklater took on School of Rock after Tape and Waking Life (both 2001). Initially, the indie-minded Linklater tried to pass on the film but producer Rick Rubin was insistent and Linklater decided, after years wondering why studio films weren’t better, to give it a go. Though Linklater didn’t write the script, his style is subtly evident – most notably his love of a wandering camera. This makes the audience read the film differently; you get a sense that the story takes place in a world that exists even when the camera is not rolling. It also develops a bit of intrigue; we often hear a character before we see them. What I love most is that it respects the audience enough to know we will fill in the blank. In the clip below, other directors would show the children’s reactions, and break up Black’s performance. But that would remove us from the perspective of the children. This lovely long take instead lets the audience see exactly what the children see.
Though Linklater might be accused of selling out in taking on such a commercial project, there is something to be said for children getting early exposure to more stylised direction. As the Nerdwriter1 brilliantly explains in this video in relation to Alfonso Cuarón’s direction of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, having an art-house director take on a kids’ movie encourages “cinematic literacy”. The more children watch films that require more engagement and successfully employ techniques of cinematic storytelling, the more demand there will hopefully be for more complex films.
School of Rock is everything that it should be; it is a well-constructed and passionate film with something to say. It might not blow your mind but it will probably make you smile and maybe even pick up a guitar. Happy Birthday School of Rock.