School of Rock (2003)
Written by Mike White
Directed by Richard Linklater
School of Rock is a film I’ve always found okay. I saw it in the theater during its theatrical run, amid Jack Black’s golden era in movies. He’s still around, but this was back when Tenacious D was being played on repeat in dorm rooms, and High Fidelity was oft-quoted. This marks a transition moment for the actor, going from raunchier fare (Orange County, Shallow Hal) to more family-friendly pictures. It’s a very smart career move, and the script seems tailor-made for Black’s specific persona.
Dewey Finn (Black) is the guitarist in a rock band who has worn out his welcome. The group wants to go in a new direction and leave Dewey out to dry while his roommate Ned Schneebly (Mike White), is being pressured by his girlfriend (Sarah Silverman) to kick Dewey out. An opportunity comes about when Horace Green prep school calls wanting Ned to substitute teach for an extended period. Dewey needs the money and poses as Ned to secure the job. Once in the classroom, Dewey levels with kids that he wants to kick back and be lazy.
Later, after hearing how well the students perform in music class, Dewey hatches a plan. He decides he could regain his prominence with a novelty band of talented kids. The only obstacle is that these children have no real knowledge of rock n’ roll music, so he must educate them first. Dewey gets to know each of the students and discovers both their musical talents as well as who they are as people. To achieve his goal, this faux teacher must keep his real identity secret from the nosy principal Ms. Mullins (Joan Cusack). Well, you know how these stories go.
I think School of Rock still holds up pretty well after all these years. Jack Black is a very charismatic, endearing actor, he’s playing the sort of positive, upbeat persona that appeals to audiences. There’s still a roughness and sloppiness that puts him in the same category as a Seth Rogen but absent the cynicism. He plays well off the kids who vary significantly in acting ability. There is a clear divide between the musically talented children and acting kids. Miranda Cosgrove is in the camp of acting talent, but Zack or Katie are played by musically gifted kids whose acting is wooden. The one exception to all this is Kevin Clark who plays drummer Freddy Jones, he’s both excellent on the drums and can keep up with the acting kids.
I think Joan Cusack is an overlooked addition to any film or television series, and she doesn’t get enough credit for her role as Miss Mullins. Instead of playing an overbearing authority figure, she’s a professional educator who also wants to be liked and not feared. Her worries are natural for someone who would be the head of a private school, fears over dissatisfied parents that result in her losing her job. I think Cusack gives some fantastic subtle comedic beats. I laughed loudest at the scene where she returns to her office filled with angry parents after she finds out the kids have left on a bus for the Battle of the Bands. She sits down and very casually says, “So, I need to inform you that your children are missing,” followed by a smile and little chuckle. It captures that moment where everything has just fallen apart so badly that another problem on the pile doesn’t really matter anymore.
So now, we look at this movie from the teacher’s perspective. I have never worked in a private school and can’t imagine I ever would, so there are segments of this I can’t verify as realistic or not. I did spend a year a pretty much an in-house substitute teacher at a singular school, so I definitely know how that goes. There’s never a mention of what content Dewey will teach beyond references to the curriculum. If the teacher was out for an extended period in public school, there would be an expectation that they would leave extensive plans to cover the period. One of the reasons I try to avoid ever taking a sick or personal day is because of what a hassle it is to put together sub plans. The students just aren’t going to behave in the same way as when their regular teacher is there, so you always have that element to look forward to when you return.
The conversations among teachers during lunch isn’t entirely accurate to my experience. Dewey has to bob and weave through heady discussions of education theory, and that doesn’t come up as formally in lunch conversations. Teachers do talk a lot about the students, the unprofessional ones rant about them the more professional teachers have serious discussions about strategies and seek advice. Most teachers just talk about things going on, how the weekend was, the sort of water cooler talk you find in office jobs. Five years ago, I decided to just start eating lunch with my students every day in the cafeteria as a way to bond closer. On Fridays, I pick five students who did really well that week, and they get to be my lunch buddies in the classroom.
Two last things stuck out to me as off. When they talk about the parent meetings in the evening, there is an expectation that Ned would be there. A substitute teacher in a public school would not be expected to attend an evening event unless there was some extenuating circumstance. Anything outside the hours of instruction would not be required of the substitute. Though, if you were a long term interim, you might stay and plan with other teachers. The other moment was when the kids load onto the bus for the trip to the Battle of the Bands, and the driver just takes them. If a class of children showed up for the field trip bus without their teacher, that driver would be going nowhere except the office to find out what was happening. It’s definitely a plot convenience detail.
School of Rock stands up a pretty fun family/kids movie. I could see it appealing to older elementary kids but not much older, and they would likely find it corny. If a child is really into music, they might enjoy it even more. This was a pretty significant film in Jack Black’s career, one of his highest-grossing pictures and a movie that introduced him to a much broader audience of filmgoers. Not the most accurate when it comes to showing teaching, but it’s a heightened version of reality so that can be forgiven.