Wednesday 6 September 2023

Back to class: "School of Rock"

It will be a rare and heartening sight for any Brits heading to the cinema this weekend: one school that remains 100% fit for purpose. To mark its twentieth anniversary, 
The School of Rock (to give it its full onscreen title) is being returned to our screens - somewhat prematurely in the UK's case, given that the film opened here belatedly, in the spring half-term holiday of 2004. Even back then, Richard Linklater's film struck the eye as the kind of universal crowdpleaser that had started to disappear from the weekly movie schedules: founded on a well-timbered, consistently witty script (by the upwardly mobile Mike White, post-Chuck & Buck, pre-Enlightened and White Lotus), and brought to further life by savvy direction and smart flesh-and-blood casting. (Its underheralded heroine: casting director Ilene Starger, who put its class of exceptional young talents and personalities together.) Built to last, as studio pics once routinely were, it also couldn't date, because it was always steeped in a residual nostalgia for rock itself - its sounds, its ephemera, its legends, its poses - a form perceived as being in a death spiral in 2003, the year of "Crazy in Love". (The same nostalgia prompted 1998's Still Crazy, 2000's Almost Famous and the entire career of The Darkness.) It's not strictly about teaching, but it understood teaching can be a kind of performance or orchestration, and that good teachers combine passion with organisation; they focus minds, then get out of the way, having hopefully filled those minds with the right ideas. The emphasis White and Linklater placed on in-class activity ensured the Noughties would be bookended with very different films on the processes of education: should you have the time for a double-bill, School of Rock would enter into leftfield but lively conversation with The Class, Laurent Cantet's Palme d'Or winner of 2008.

In the years since its release, the Internet has identified one potential weakspot in the presence of Sarah Silverman as White's onscreen girlfriend: we can't blame Silverman (then only semi-known) for wanting to stick her head inside the multiplexes, but it's undeniably disappointing to see a proven, funny performer stuck in such a whiny, joyless role. (White may actually have invented the trope we've come to associate with Judd Apatow: the disproportionately hot girl obliged to play frowning second fiddle to schlubby boys.) The comic consolations, however, are considerable, whether Joan Cusack, expertly playing straight man as the school's buttoned-down principal (and we should note how White's writing allows her, at least, to undo a button or two as the film goes on) or the bouncy, buoying rapport between Jack Black's Dewey Finn and his young charges. This latter is pure Linklater: the teaching scenes are visibly looser and more spontaneous - more mischievous - than anything in the family films that had immediately preceded School of Rock, born of loosing a big kid on a classroom full of willing enablers and assistants, partners-in-crime, and seeing what comes to pass. School of Rock's secret is that, like most worthwhile Hollywood ventures, it's really a lesson in chemistry. The pay-off is a Battle of the Bands contest that looks legitimately grungy and doesn't make you want to swallow your own fist out of embarrassment - partly because White and Linklater realised that if rock can't change the world or do much to halt the decline of Western civilisation, it can still offer us smaller victories, such as a great night out. Both Black and Linklater (who started filming Boyhood around this time) have continued to bounce around energetically in the intervening years, but White broke decisively for TV, and producer Scott Rudin was discredited; the excellent title song (penned by White with - none more 2003, this - The Mooney Suzuki) peaked on the charts at #51, a TV spin-off left zero discernible cultural footprint, and the whole thing wound up as an Andrew Lloyd Webber/Julian Fellowes musical. Key teachings went unlearnt, all told. But the movie rocks on regardless.

School of Rock returns to cinemas nationwide from Friday.

No comments:

Post a Comment