Adam Pascal, andrew lloyd webber, band, classic comedy, Comedy, deep purple, film, film review, immigrant song, instruments, Jack Black, Joan Cusack, led zepplin, Mike White, miranda cosgrove, movie, movie review, music class, music teacher, musical, no vacancy, review, Richard Linklater, rock, rock and roll, rock band, rock music, sarah silverman, school band, school comedy, School of Rock, smoke on the water, substitute teacher, teacher, The School of Rock, wagner college
There are some beloved movies you watch and think “Why the hell did it take me this long to see this?” I can officially count School of Rock as one of them. I once caught some of it on tv during a babysitting gig that was more long ago than I care to remember, but this was my first time seeing it in full. Like Mean Girls, I’ve heard a lot of the lines before I got around to seeing the movie itself, so it’s interesting to see them in their original context. And of course, it stars Jack Black in the role that made him America’s sweetheart. So let’s get to it!
And no, I have not listened to or seen the musical version yet, so I apologize for not making a lot of comparisons throughout.
Our movie opens in a club where the crowd is barely entertained by the band, No Vacancy, fronted by a guitarist named Theo (Adam Pascal).
Also in the band is our protagonist Dewey, played by Jack Black. Dewey’s a fairly talented guitar player and singer, but he has an annoying habit of hogging the spotlight with his on-stage antics. His showing off turns off most of the audience, and he ruins the performance by failing at a stage dive. Dewey doesn’t have much to look forward to at home, either. He shares an apartment with his friend and former bandmate Ned Schneebly (Mike White, the movie’s screenwriter and songwriter) and Ned’s overbearing girlfriend Patty (Sarah Silverman). Though Ned insists he’s working hard at his music and his ship is coming in any day now, Mike and Patty – but mostly Patty – demand that he stop mooching around and get a real job that contributes to society.
Ned’s a substitute teacher working his way towards becoming a full-time educator, and apart from lacking half a spine that we all know will generate by the third act he’s an okay guy and a good friend to Dewey. My only nitpick is his last name sounds like a word Jack Black would make up while in the middle of improvising a melody. Go ahead. Say it. Schneebly. Such a fun word to say.
But I guess I should talk about Patty. I really hate Patty. She’s a completely unlikable character, and that’s kind of the point, but more than that I despise what she represents. There’s a “bros before hoes” trend in most modern-day comedies that gets on my nerves. You’ve seen it before: Two immature guys have an unbreakable bond, but along comes a mature, responsible woman who falls for one of them and it results in a tug-of-war between the two opposing parties that results in either the woman relenting and allowing her significant other to continue being a selfish man-baby with his selfish man-baby bro, or the guy realizes the woman is a conniving shrew not worthy of marrying Satan and dumps her. It gives the idea that the woman is always the wrong one in this scenario despite her best and realistic intentions, and Patty is the absolute worst culmination of that. On the one hand, she’s trying to get her doormat boyfriend to stand up to someone who’s clearly taking advantage of him. I can get behind that. But on the other hand, she has no redeeming qualities and is very controlling of Ned, way more so than Dewey, which makes their relationship comes off as borderline abusive. Though Ned seems to be doing all right for himself, she keeps threatening to leave him if he doesn’t match her impossible standards. Oh, and hearing Sarah Silverman (who does absolutely nothing to make Patti funny, by the way) whinging on and on about what she wants and Ned folding to her selfish demands like a house of cards takes me right back to Ralph Breaks The Internet, which is something of a sore topic for me.
Dewey insists they’ll be paid in full once he wins the upcoming Battle of the Bands and is catapulted to stardom. But No Vacancy has opted to vote him out of the band for his excessive showboating and immaturity. Dewey immediately proves their accusations wrong by ranting how they forgot that it’s all about the music, maaaaaaan, and that he’s gonna go start his own band with blackjack and hookers. He also vows his new crew will kick No Vacancy’s ass at the Battle of the Bands.
Dewey’s attempts at recruiting members for his new band doesn’t go well, and Patty’s breathing down his neck as he tries to scrounge up the money he owes her for his half of the rent. But as if by fate, Dewey answers a call meant for Ned from the local prep school asking him to substitute for the the next month. The need for fast cash inspires Dewey to impersonate Ned and he drives out to the school in his busted old van.
Here’s a funny story for you: when I first watched this movie to write up the critiques and some funny bits, I mistook the school for Professor X’s School from the X-Men movies. I was gonna joke that Dewey was doing Ned a solid by taking his job there since it blows up every other week. Then I did the research just to make sure I had the correct location and learned the school of School of Rock was shot virtually in my own backyard. Say hello to Wagner College, a repository of performing arts knowledge which I very nearly attended after graduating high school. In fact, any parts of School of Rock that weren’t filmed in California were done in my community. I have no idea how I missed out on that back then.
Principal Rosalie Mullins (Joan Cusack) is dubious about siccing Dewey on the students when he makes it clear he’s in this for the paycheck and after witnessing his hilarious “lecture” to the students about “the man”, but lets him have the classroom anyway. Right from the start neither Dewey or the students have any respect for the other. He also butts heads with the teacher’s pet and self-appointed class factotum Summer, played by a young Miranda Cosgrove.
I can’t be the only that thinks Summer is the prototype for Cosgrove’s most recognizable characters, Meagan from Drake & Josh and Carly of iCarly. Super smart but with a bratty streak that drives them to use their talents to her advantage above everyone else’s? They’re so similar that the only thing distinguishing the three are the names.
Summer’s appalled by Dewey’s disdain for rules and grades. But since Dewey now calls the shots, he lets the kids do nothing until school’s out. Yet even after a few days of freedom the kids get bored and ask if they can learn something. Dewey is stuck until he stumbles across some of his charges playing a stirring rendition of El Concierto de Aranjuez, one of my favorite classical pieces, in music class. Dewey decides to do a little of what corporations like to refer to as synergy: take the kids he’s supposed to be teaching and transform them into his band.
Dewey devotes the next day to introducing the class musicians to classic rock as part of a “school-wide contest” they have to keep under wraps or risk disqualification. He groups the other students into jobs based on their talents: backup singers, roadies (set/tech equipment), security (keeping an eye out for Principal Mullins) and groupies (making merchandise and basically cheerleading).
Summer also auditions to be a singer but Dewey demotes her to a groupie after a short, ridiculously awful rendition of “Memory” from Cats, which takes on another level of meta humor when you remember 1) Cosgrove is a decent singer and had to take “bad” singing lessons just for this short moment, and 2) Andrew Lloyd Webber was behind the Broadway adaptation of School of Rock. Lord Andy actually liked the poke at his most famous song so much that he kept it in there. I’d applaud him for that good-natured humility, but then I remember his attitude towards critics of Love Never Dies and pray that he’ll just quietly slink into retirement at Sydmonton.
Later, Summer confronts Dewey about his decision since “groupies are sluts”. Those exact words came from a ten year-old child, not me. Using some persuasive tactics, she gets Dewey to give her a new job he comes up with on the fly: band manager. With her knack for detail, organization, and other qualities we inflate our resumes with, she proves herself as an effective right-hand woman to Dewey. Dewey pronounces himself leader of the band, makes up memorable nicknames for the kids, and look if I stop to point out all times Jack Black gives us comedy/music gold with his off-the-rails freestyle then I’ll be here all day. So here’s the legendary Legend of the Rent, aka a man ranting about his life in song to a fifth-grade class.
Dewey, despite his initial selfishness, ends up having a positive effect on his students through his tutelage. He encourages Larry, the lonely, nerdy keyboardist who’s convinced he’s not cool enough to be in the band, that he belongs with them. He helps Tamika overcome her shyness stemming from insecurity over her body and become one of the lead singers. When Dewey notices how Zach, the lead guitarist, has trouble with his controlling father, he shows him how to use music as an outlet for his frustration. As a result, Zach writes an even better song than the one Dewey came up with for the band to perform.
But then there’s Billy.
Billy, Billy, Billy.
Billy “Fancy Pants” Billianson.
For all its good intent towards making the kids feel better about themselves, this is where the movie falls short. School of Rock was made in the early 2000’s, when gay characters did exist, but the only point of their existence was to be gay. And Billy is no exception. He’s sassy, has a slight lisp, is in charge of designing the over-the-top costumes, and isn’t given the same amount of depth, time, or reasons to rebel as his other classmates. He’s just there to be the one-note gay kid for audiences to chortle at. It’s not as bad as other gay characters at the time, but it’s noticeable. And kind of insulting by today’s standards.
Mike White, who is bisexual, wrote Billy to be a little like himself, an ordinary kid who was kind of a nerd and just happens to like boys. White was also raised by a loving, openly gay father. And the young actor who played Billy struggled with coming to terms with his sexuality in real life. So seeing director Richard Linklater play up Billy as a one-dimensional limp-wristed diva rightfully pissed White off. The two clashed over it, and despite Linklater regretting what he did, White disowned School of Rock. That’s the reason why we’ve never gotten the sequel that people have been asking for. From what I’ve heard the musical doesn’t entirely patch up the issue, but it does make it so Billy being the gay kid isn’t quite the punchline it is in the movie. Better to put a band-aid over that gaping wound than nothing at all, I guess.
Things slowly come together for the band, which is christened The School of Rock. The kids and Dewey have finally hit it off, he’s ingratiated himself with the other teachers, and the children have loosened up and are much more sociable and happy than they were under Miss Mullin’s rigid regiment. One of the few things Dewey has to worry about is convincing Miss Mullins to let him take the students to the Battle of the Bands under the guise of a school trip. But first they have to pass the auditions.
It’s a tough crowd; none of the other bands there take the children seriously, though Freddy, the drummer, mildly impresses one deadbeat group with his confrontational attitude. When Dewey returns from giving Tamika a pep talk, we get an honest to goodness scary moment where Summer casually informs him that Freddy took off with the band to their van. They only invited him to smoke and play cards, but when you’re in charge of a group of children and you find one of them has wandered off with a bunch of strangers into a back alley, tell me you don’t assume the worst has happened. For all his foibles, it’s clear Dewey’s more mature instincts are coming out as he tears down the band for setting a bad example for the kids and reprimands Freddy for prioritizing looking cool over his duties to the band, qualities that he himself once had.
By the time Dewey returns with Freddy, however, the venue has filled up before they can perform, and the man in charge won’t give them a chance. But Summer has an idea: a rare terminal blood disease called stickittothemaneosis. Side effects include coughing, paleness, apathy, and an instant garnering of sympathy that gets them into the Battle without even having to audition. Dewey promises her a lifetime of gold stars for his gratitude, but Summer tells him she didn’t do it for the grades. She did it for the band. It really shows how far she’s come in caring more about her scholastic standing.
The class celebrates while speeding back to school to the tune of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, which is a little detail that’s awesome for a couple of reasons. First, their cover of it is pretty good. Second, Led Zeppelin rarely allows their music to be used in other media, so having their most famous song pop up here (let alone be sung by a bunch of kids and a hyperactive Jack Black) is something special. In fact the only other times Immigrant Song has appeared on film since was in Thor:Ragnarok (awesome) and…
And now you know exactly why Led Zeppelin is so uptight about how their songs are used.
Dewey nearly lands in hot water with Miss Mullins when she catches his guitar lying around the classroom and he has to quickly improvise a math lesson in song. Mullins lets Dewey off with a reminder to stick to the traditional teaching methods.
Eager to win Mullins over and warm her up to letting the kids go on his “field trip”, he takes her out for coffee – and by coffee I mean he brings her to a bar for a buzz. He also gets her to let down her hair with a little Stevie Nicks, going off an anecdote from one of the teachers about how Mullins’ inner fangirl comes out with a little encouragement from Charlie Mops. This is where Mullins really gets to open up about the stress of her job and how lonely she is. The strive for perfection in her students and staff has isolated her, and she’s scared of having a little fun and showing some emotion because of her position. It puts a different perspective on an earlier but funny scene involving Mullins comforting a crying little girl that shows how uptight and out of touch she is (and Cusack kills it). She admits Dewey is the first employee she’s ever had a good time out with in all her years on the job, and it appears as though a barrier between them has come down.
I only have one gripe with this part, This scene is played up as a date, yet Dewey and Mullins’ relationship doesn’t really evolve beyond it. Cusack and Black have some good chemistry and they make it seem like they’re heading towards a romance, but it’s dropped after this one drinking session. Granted, I like that a movie doesn’t have to shoehorn in a romance subplot just because every other comedy does it, but why tease it if it ends up going nowhere?
When the not-date is through, Mullins is more open to Dewey’s “teaching methods” and to possibly okaying his class trip. But by the next morning she’s more concerned with something bigger on her plate: Parents Night is coming up. The occasion always puts her on edge, and she asks Dewey to accompany her. Dewey agrees, hoping that will get her to sign off on the Battle.
But this is where things go downhill. Ned finds a check addressed to himself from the school in the mail, and Dewey is forced to tell him what he’s been up to. Not two seconds pass after Dewey leaves for Parents Night before Patty chokes the truth out of Ned. In the middle of Dewey’s talk, which is already falling apart as the mothers and fathers question why their children are obsessed with rock music instead of schoolwork, the police show up, summoned by Patty. Dewey’s cover is blown, Mullins is confused and betrayed (though to be fair Dewey did try to tell her he was a fraud, but she mistook it for modesty), and the adults are enraged that their kids have been left in the care of a total stranger.
Normally this is where I’d lambast the movie for the “liar revealed” cliche, but Dewey did have it coming – impersonating his best friend for money, and putting his career and children’s education on the line just to one-up his former band is hard to defend. And it’s a wonder the whole scheme didn’t fall apart earlier when you take into account how many background checks go into hiring teachers. Still, it doesn’t diminish how much Dewey has matured (somewhat) by the experience and how his and the kids’ lives have improved from his time teaching. He even makes a point of highlighting their talents to their disbelieving parents. Dewey admits he’s touched the kids as much as he’s been touched by them – which, despite the sentiment, is the absolute worst thing to say in this scenario and he sprints out before the cops assume he’s confessing to an even worse felony.
Dewey, Patty and Ned return home where the former two dissolve into bickering until Ned manages to break it up for once. He talks to Dewey one-on-one to get just why he did what he did. What follows is a meaningful conversation about what music means to them and their aspirations. Dewey apologizes and talks about how he can’t handle the idea of giving up on music as easily as Ned did. Ned tells him he’s wrong; he loves making music and it was painful for him to leave his dreams behind, but he doubted his abilities since he was going nowhere. It was easier for him to quit than keep deluding himself into thinking he was good. This causes Dewey to doubt that maybe he really does suck at music and he’s been wasting everyone’s time. That, on top of Ned politely telling Dewey he should move out, causes him to spiral into a deep depression.
The next day is the Battle of the Bands, and the kids are stuck in the classroom unsupervised as Miss Mullins is too busy arguing with their parents to find another sub. Even though they’ve been lied to, none of them can deny he was a cool teacher and the only one who listened to them. The fact that they’ve been left on their own as their parents squabble over what they think is best for them shows that. And they don’t want all the hard work they did go to waste; grades or not, the show is just as important to them as it was to Dewey. So they hijack the school bus to Dewey’s apartment and convince him to get back in the band. Moved by this true punk rock action, Dewey snaps out of his funk and he and the kids hustle to the theater.
When Ned learns Dewey’s still performing, Patty tries to stop him from going to the concert by whinging about when he’s finally going to learn to stand up for himself. And she gets her wish – Ned dumps her in the midst of her whining.
Dewey shows how far he’s come by deferring all the decisions to a group vote instead of trying to control everything, and suggesting they perform Mike’s song instead of his. He also makes one thing clear – they’re not in it to win, they’re in this to rock.
Mullins and the parents discover their younglings have flown the coop and make it to the theater on time to see their big performance.
The band is a hit, the moms, dads, and Mullins are proud of their kids, the kids themselves earn respect from their fellow competitors, and Ned pulls off the successful stage dive he’s been aiming for since the start of the film.
…which is why No Vacancy wins?!
Dewey is upset until the kids remind him of what he told them before the performance. They came, and they rocked. And the audience echoes this statement: they boo No Vacancy off the stage and demand School of Rock. While I’m the type who enjoys a clean-cut happy end, I applaud the movie for giving us the Rocky ending where the characters don’t necessarily achieve what they set out for but find the acceptance they’ve been craving.
And so Dewey and the kids perform a smashing encore, and the credits roll over the next jam session joined by Ned in their apartment, which has become an after-school music program called, appropriately, The School of Rock.
Now, having finally watched the movie for myself, I can support the love it has and call myself a fan as well. Jack Black has such good rapport with the kids that I wish I had a teacher like him in school. He’s gutbusting as always. I didn’t get to talk much about Joan Cusack, but she never fails to deliver.
In a strange way, School of Rock is a pseudo-remake of The Music Man, except our Harold Hill is actually teaching kids music while conning everyone. For so simple a story there’s no shortage of hilarious lines (mostly courtesy of Black) and some creativity in the cinematography, including a handful of impressive long one-take shots. I’m doubly impressed when I recall that the kids’ music-making is real. Linklater went out of his way to cast kids that really could sing and and play that well. It’s a cool decision that Andrew Lloyd Webber wisely carried over into the Broadway show; it would have gotten it much more recognition if it wasn’t competing against Hamilton the same year. I’m gonna have to check out the musical myself to see if it holds up.
So, School of Rock. It rocks.
School’s out, yo.