Deciding what to cover in the latest edition of my ‘What I’ve Been Watching’ series was quite tricky. Initially, I thought about giving my thoughts on a few new theatrical releases such as The Sparks Brothers, CODA, and Pig, but I was aware that a particular film was screening in a Dublin cinema towards the end of the month that I felt compelled to write about having seen it so many times: School of Rock (2003). Showing as part of the Lighthouse’s ‘Summer of Fun’ season where numerous classic films were screened to encourage audiences to return to the Smithfield-based venue after its reopening in June, the prospect of watching Richard Linklater’s comedy on the big screen again having been fortunate enough to have seen it when it first came out was one I could not allow to slip by. While previous entries in this blog series focus on a handful of features, but between the fact that classes in schools are resuming and the film itself is fresh in my memory, I reckon it is an appropriate time to dedicate this edition to a movie I have no qualms labelling one of my favourites ever.
If anyone reading this somehow has not seen School of Rock yet, the basic premise revolves around a floundering, wannabe rockstar named Dewey Finn (Jack Black) who is kicked out of a band known as No Vacancy and is on the verge of being kicked out of the apartment he shares with his friend and former bandmate Ned Schneebly (Mike White) due to having no means of paying his share of the rent. Seeking a job, he intercepts a phone call intended for Ned about a substitute teaching position in a prep school and ends up pretending to be his friend and accepting the role. Out of his depth, he discretely witnesses his class performing during a music class, and decides to use this as an opportunity to form a rock band with his students, aiming to compete in a Battle of the Bands contest with prize money valued at $20,000.
The simplicity of School of Rock’s set-up lays the foundations for its subsequent success. The idea of a naïve, self-obsessed protagonist gradually developing into an empathetic, compassionate individual is not particularly original, but the manner in which Dewey Finn evolves as a person over the course of the narrative is totally convincing due to the excellent writing and Jack Black’s outstanding performance. I would not consider it hyperbole to describe this portrayal as a career-defining turn for Black; I saw this when I was only seven and it marked the first time I had watched the actor in anything, and in the years that followed I wanted to see every movie that he featured in, so much so that I was beside myself with excitement when adverts for Shark Tale (2004) were shown on TV and his and Will Smith’s names were listed among the voice cast. Black’s passion for rock music transmits to Dewey, and the scenes where he performs either on the guitar or vocally are electrifying. However, where the actor really shines are in his interactions with the students. Dewey may not be a brilliant musician despite his best attempts, but he proves himself to be an exceptional teacher, albeit through rather unorthodox methods. Even though the personalities of each member of the class vary drastically, he is able to relate to all of them and offer valuable pieces of advice, especially to the likes of lead and backing vocalist Tomika (Maryam Hassan) and keyboard player Lawrence (Robert Tsai). The dynamic he shares with his students-turned-bandmates is one that has strongly resonated with me upon multiple viewings, as it combines the level of discipline, encouragement, and buoyancy I would aim to emulate if I was teaching a lesson.
One aspect of the film that at particularly impressed me during my most recent viewing is the pacing. The first ten minutes convey all we need to know about Dewey and his situation without lingering on his plight for longer than necessary, before jumping straight to the narrative’s most appealing element: seeing how the protagonist copes teaching this class. Once he forms the idea to train them as musicians, School of Rock allows the audience to revel in the dynamic which develops between Dewey and his students. The development of the titular band never feels rushed – although a certain amount of disbelief needs to be suspended – and the feature heavily emphasises the collaborative nature of the music-making process that Dewey highlights in their practice sessions. Just as Dewey finds a role for every student, the film manages to deftly balance the screen time between each class member, allowing the more charismatic individuals to demonstrate their talent while ensuring that the more low-key figures do not feel neglected.
There are so many memorable moments in School of Rock that somehow manage to resonate just as strongly on my twentieth viewing as my first. Dewey introducing the students to instruments like the keyboard and bass guitar is, his hysterical rendition of his own track titled ‘Legend of the Rent’, him and the pupils creating a song revolved around things they dislike, the maths song, and the performance at the Battle of the Bands contest are sequences that elicit laughs or tug at the heartstrings upon every rewatch. What has been apparent to me upon multiple viewings is how well the film plays with people of various ages; even if certain comments Dewey makes may go over a young audience member’s head, there is enough entertainment to be found in the broader aspects of Black’s comedic turn and the spins he puts on conventional teaching methods that will capture their attention. The lessons learned by the main character strike a chord with older viewers, as his sustained passion for a specific art form is eventually reciprocated in unlikely circumstances, with a certain level of humility required. However, the film also has valuable messages for younger audiences, specifically in regards to embracing new challenges and finding your own voice, despite the resistance of others.
There have been numerous films I remember seeing a lot when I was a child that I eventually realised were not as good as I once thought. School of Rock is one of those rare pictures that has gotten better the more I have watched it. The esteem it is held in by cinephiles but also many of my friends and family members vindicates the strong attachment I have had to the movie ever since its release, and the fact that it remains so quotable is a testament to White’s excellent writing and the outstanding performances, especially from Jack Black. Just like a great music track, School of Rock hits all the right notes.