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SCHOOL OF ROCK

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jack Black, Joan Cusack, Mike White, Sarah Silverman
Director:  Richard Linklater
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  109 Minutes
Release Date:  February 24, 2003

"Okay, here's the deal...I have a hangover.  Does anybody know what that means?"

"Doesn't that mean you're drunk?"

"NOO...it means I was drunk YESTERDAY."

Film ***

When I was a kid, I discovered the guitar, and it's been a part of my life ever since.  I remember in high school, those of us who played music were kind of a crowd unto ourselves.  It shaped our attitudes and outlooks, it helped us form a bond, and it even gave us a common language.  We understood that music isn't something you do, it's something you are.

School of Rock understands that, too.  Here's a movie that knows rock and roll isn't really about sex and drugs but about passion and expression.  It asks why some of us continue to rock out when we're well past the days of our reckless youth, and it knows the answer at the same time...because for those short minutes you're on the stage and all eyes are on you, you're a star, no matter what you came from or what you're going back to afterwards.

This film is largely a vehicle for Jack Black, but rarely has a picture and a star been so perfectly married.  He plays Dewey Finn, a man still living the rock and roll dream that most of his high school band buddies have long since given up on.  It doesn't matter if other look at him like some kind of oddball because he has no real job or worldly ambitions.  The music in his blood.

But after being kicked out of his band for showboating, and in danger of losing the roof over his head, he takes a call for his substitute teacher roommate Ned Schneebly (White, who also wrote the script) and finds himself posing as Ned as a teacher in a private elementary school in order to earn a few quick dollars!

Dewey is hardly teacher material at first.  He doesn't respond well to the kids, nor they to him.  But one morning, at a particularly low point, he overhears the students in band practice.  They can actually play!  And this gives him the ultimate idea...turn the class into a rock band so they can compete in an upcoming battle of the bands for a $20,000 purse!  All they have to do is practice and pull together a dynamite rock show, while making sure that none of the parents or the school's no-nonsense principal Miss Mullins (Cusack) finds out what's going on!

Believable?  Not for an instant.  But while some movies beg you to suspend your disbelief, this one kind of charms you into it.  In the first place, not only are the kids all great, but they could actually play their instruments.  That adds a much needed layer of authenticity to the fantastic premise  And Jack Black is, of course, a living breathing testament to rock and roll passion.  His wicked grin and terrific voice are the perfect counterpoint to the students' innocent charm.

But what I really liked about the movie is simply that it took its musical passion seriously.  Writer and co/star Mike White has admitted he's not the biggest rock fan in the world, but Jack Black is, and the two were able to channel Black's energy and love for music into a film that celebrates rock and roll rather than belittle it.  Of course, over the course of the story, there are the obligatory transitions:  while Black teaches the kids the magic of music, the kids also help him to become something more than an irresponsible slob.  Isn't it great how they all become better people by the end?

The humor and charm more than make up for an implausible situation.  And though I couldn't quite believe the movie, I could easily believe IN it and what it had to say about the transforming power of music.  It can make the ordinary extraordinary, it can make the uncool cool, it make the most quiet among us sing out with something to say.  Frankly, I think that's a perfectly good lesson, and one worth repeating.

Video ***

This is a solid anamorphic transfer from Paramount (a full screen version is also available), with terrific coloring throughout.  A few dark images are a little fuzzy on the details, but nothing distracting.  The overall presentation is quite good.

Audio ***

The 5.1 soundtrack is all about the music, of course, and the good news is that it sounds great.  While not the kind of film that demands much from the rear stage, it opens up during some of the concert footage, while the .1 channel keeps the bottom end rocking.  Dialogue is clean and clear throughout, and the dynamic range, thanks to the songs, is fairly formidable.

Features ****

I was glad to see Paramount offer up a healthy extra helping of the kids in the movie with their features package.  They get their own commentary track, which is a fun and enjoyable listen, plus you can see the Toronto Film Festival through their eyes with their video diary.  They are also featured heavily in the "Lessons Learned" featurette, which of course also showcases Black and the filmmakers as well as you see what went into the making of the movie.

Jack Black and director Richard Linklater share hosting duties on the second commentary track, which is more informative but equally as fun.  There is also an MTV diary of Jack Black, the "Dewey Finn History of Rock" interactive feature, a trailer, web site archive, a School of Rock music video, and even Jack Black's on-camera pitch to Led Zeppelin to let them use "The Immigrant Song" in the movie (which obviously worked).

Summary:

Pencils down, papers forward, class.  School of Rock scores high marks for its passion, humor and charm, and for taking the love of music seriously.  Jack Black at the head of a cast of some wonderful and talented kids makes for a winning formula.  As Meat Loaf said, rock and roll dreams come through.

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