Entertainment Talk

School of Rock holds up by sticking to serious fun

School of Rock Jack Black
In School of Rock, Dewey Finn (Jack Black) merely wants to get on his feet by proving his proficiency in his passion. What he cultivates is a less individualistic spread of ends to justify his otherwise questionable means. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Dewey Finn (Jack Black) does not need Horace Green Prep as much as the other way around. How quickly School of Rock establishes that twist is as refreshing as it is perplexing.

Dewey is simply engrossed in his music-oriented dream, to a point where he exasperates others. Because of that, his saga is little more than a plain comedy patty on a music bun.

That’s music, not musical. If you want the latter trimming, look to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Broadway adaptation. The production, which launched in 2015, will continue for another three-and-a-half months.

Black summed up the distinction in the original film’s making-of featurette. As he said in the segment, screenwriter and co-star Mike White originally “wanted it to be a musical. And it’s not really a musical, it didn’t turn out that way. Like (in) a musical, people start singing for no reason.”

“That doesn’t happen in this movie,” he continued. “There’s a lot of music in it, but it’s not a musical per se.”

That is a charitable assessment. The silver-screen edition of School of Rock is not a musical at all. All singing and music therein has its reasons, even if those surrounding Dewey do not see them right away.

That is but one part of the screenplay’s rigid resistance to sappy platitude. It lets us stay focused, along with Dewey, on his singular quest and secretive, on-the-fly game plan for it.

When he executes his scheme, the man who passes himself off as a disciple of “unusual methods” in pedagogy attains unplanned, unconventional heroic status. The way he gets kids like Freddy Jones (Kevin Clark) to take their “goofing off” seriously yields more dividends than a diversion. Ditto the way he convinces Summer Hathaway (Miranda Cosgrove) to see learning value beyond an academic syllabus.

The way everyone gels and fulfills Dewey’s mission stretches some truth, but is not nearly as far-fetched as spontaneous singing. The music is all structured, and the romance and victory are confined to the Battle of the Bands audience’s adulation.

Apart from that, extra elements seldom creep into the movie. That selectivity in genre is how School of Rock has stayed fresh since its release 15 years ago Wednesday. It shows little more than a guy who wants music in his life, needs money more and will do almost anything to ensure both.

If that means rolling the dice by merging the two endeavors, so be it. As a byproduct, Dewey solves problems the Horace Green students, faculty and parents had missed, disregarded or given up on.

That is not the most suspense-prone storyline structure, but it does not need to be. For a change, this film spares us any romantic subplots or dramatic, competitive conflict that yanks you to the edge of your seat when you would rather kick back and laugh for 108 minutes.

With that said, the inspiring and heartwarming bits are fleeting, harmless happenstance. Look at the way Dewey loosens the stiff Zack Mooneyham (Joey Gaydos, Jr.) and Principal Rosalie Mullins (Joan Cusack). Or how he convinces Lawrence (Robert Tsai) and Tomika (Maryam Hassan) they are trapped in a chrysalis, then encourages them to break out.

None of that is supposed to happen. Between answering Mullins’ call for a substitute teacher intended for his roommate Ned (White) and overhearing the class he takes over in the music room, Dewey is simply in the right place at the right time.

The way his scheme keeps working, let alone rebounds after its apparent downfall, induces more grinning head-shaking than anything. Dewey gets away with more than he logically should for longer than one would expect.

His verbal stumbles, malapropisms and awkward cover-ups should clue Mullins in on his lack of credibility. The fact that she suspects nothing until his roommates blow his cover underscore her and the school’s need for relaxation.

Along the way, no love stories arise, and there are no out-and-out antagonists. Most of the conflict comes in the form of converting stuffy attitudes.

Ultimately, Patty (Sarah Silverman), Ned’s impatient live-in girlfriend, is the only lost cause on that front. Ironically, her relationship with Ned is the only one depicted in the film. Such depictions are limited, and Ned punctuates its ending with a literal door-slam as he goes to watch the competition.

Naturally, Dewey is bent on winning for a better cushion of cash and recognition. And he does need to gain the parents’ and principal’s approval, or at least sneak through their barriers, to defeat his old band, No Vacancy. But his rivals are out of the way and out of the picture between his canning and the competition.

During that lengthy interim, the plot sustains a singular focus on preserving the “project” itself. Dewey knows that, besides preserving his ploy, he must win Roz over for collateral in case Plan A collapses. Naturally, that strictly entails the professional sense of making allowances for his egregious breach of curriculum.

He and his story thus live up to his reminder that rock is not about “scoring chicks.” The only suggestion of a relationship with Roz quells itself when she asks Dewey to accompany her to Parents’ Night and promptly clarifies, “It wouldn’t be date.” Odds are she does not realize the likely necessity of that disclaimer from Dewey’s perspective.

Regardless, Dewey’s motive for offering her an after-school “coffee” outing stems from the common ground his colleagues enlighten him to. By building on his and Mullins’ shared interest, he sees a way around the rule against substitutes leading field trips. It is his first bridge of insurance with a potential obstacle to his mission.

As the subsequent bonding over beer and Stevie Nicks proves, rock is also not about “getting wasted.” Maybe getting a little buzzed, but not crossing any boundaries.

No, as Leonard (Cole Hawkins) says on the class’ third charm of a try, the core mission is “sticking it to the man.”

But despite what Dewey tells the class in the heat of an earlier lecture, Mullins is hardly “the man.” When he gives her an unprecedented chance to schmooze with a teacher, she laments being beholden to the man’s spell. The Horace Green aura has intoxicated and exacerbated her students’ high-strung parents. In turn, they have overcommitted themselves to putting a check on the head of school.

No later than when she vents in his van, Dewey realized he has misjudged her, just like he did the students with his initial indifference. He is just as serious in assuring that she is “way cool” as he is in stressing every student’s asset.

School of Rock does not pack the most suspense-prone storyline structure, but it does not need to. For a change, this film spares us any romantic subplots or dramatic, competitive conflict that yanks you to the edge of your seat when you would rather kick back and laugh for 108 minutes.

In so doing, he lends credence to an earlier statement that was supposed to be comically pathetic and hollow. “I service society by rocking!” he insists to his roommates on the soon-to-be life-changing morning.

The students ensure that turning point by sneakily rebelling and escaping with Dewey to the competition they were preparing for. There the self-proclaimed School of Rock makes its public debut and converts the parents and principal by displaying what they had lacked and needed.

The closest this film gets to anything emotionally evocative is when Tomika steps up for her solo. The brief shot of her parents beaming with pride has its place. Otherwise, Zack’s song simply serves to show the uptight parents that there is value in learning and mastering that which is not graded.

Yes, Zack’s song, as in the composition of a 10-year-old. Earlier on, Dewey had administered an oath in which the students swear not to “fight him for creative control.” Not surprisingly, given the strict household he hails from, Zack takes that vow to heart.

But when he passes free time in the classroom strumming his secret song, his obedience to “Mr. S” is rewarded. Dewey takes immediate interest and opens the creative gateway to Zack’s tune, which sums up the transformation he instilled.

Yes, he had selfishly spread a fever for what Zack’s father and Freddy alike initially dub “a waste of time.” But in the process, he finds unknown and untapped skills for himself and his students.

The result is a high-end extracurricular program that any school of a Horace Green caliber should crave. All along, Dewey had merely wanted to get on his feet by proving his proficiency in his passion. What he cultivates is a less individualistic spread of ends to justify his otherwise questionable means.

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Al Daniel

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