This trio of edgy talents comes together to present, against all expectations, a formula comedy. Fortunately The School of Rock proves smart and spirited enough to give the formula a good name.
As Dewey Finn, Black provides a PG-13 version of his Tenacious D persona, a posturing, hell-raising, legend-in-his-own-mind rock star. The film's opening tracking shot snakes through a seedy rock club to find Dewey jamming with his band, stage-diving and cranking the Marshall amp. His antics irritate his bandmates, so they fire him despite Dewey's dream to compete in an upcoming Battle of the Bands.
Strapped for cash, Dewey intercepts a phone call for his roommate, a substitute teacher (scripter Mike White), and passes himself off as a fifth-grade instructor at an elite private school. At first, Dewey takes the gig just to goof off and rant about the system ("The world is run by The Man!"). When Dewey learns they've never heard of Motorhead, he's so aghast that he expands their curriculum to include "rock history and theory." Dewey teaches a rather sweet notion of what rock bands should be. When Zach mentions that he's writing a song, Dewey insists that the class rehearse it, because that's what rock bands do -- they try out each other's stuff.
But when Dewey learns that his class includes musical prodigies, he gives them a special assignment: Rock Band. Claiming it's for a prestigious academic project, Dewey turns his students into headbangers so he can lead them in the Battle of the Bands. With more students than band positions, he assigns the rest as roadies, groupies and "security," who keep lookout for the school's harried principal (Joan Cusack).
The premise could suit the most predictable underdog movie, but in School, it pays off superbly. Throughout the film the students (cast mostly with unknowns who sing and play their own instruments) provide smarter, more responsible straight men to Black's class clown.
Much of the film takes place in the classroom and features one charmingly silly scene after another: Dewey shows classical guitarist Zack (Joey Gaydos) the chords of "Iron Man" and "Smoke on the Water"; Dewey sings an a cappella version of his new song, a grandiose account of his own struggles; Dewey leads the kids in an improvised rebel song against juvenile topics like "chores" and "no allowance."
As a physical comic, Black is frequently cast as a flailing pudgy guy, but unlike, say, the late Chris Farley, he's flailing pudgy guy with a purpose. The joke behind Tenacious D is that Black and his "bro," Kyle Gass, are husky guys with acoustic guitars who embrace rock's dumbest cliches. The joke within the joke is that, in their fashion, they do rock, playing with berserk showmanship and infectious enthusiasm to put most "real" bands to shame.
School spotlights Black's guitar-god gestures, his hair-flips, his sinuous eyebrows, his misguided, macho dance moves. Yet Black also gets to show a sincere side as he encourages the overscheduled pupils to blow off steam and gives encouragement to a shy girl (Maryam Hussan) who sings "Chain of Fools" like Aretha Franklin. But the film doesn't oversell its sentiment. School acknowledges that Dewey's wasting his students' time and exploiting them, and when he tells some parents, "They've touched me -- and I think that I've touched them," they react like he's a child molester.
Linklater's direction and White's script frequently exercise restraint. Instead of turning Cusack's killjoy principal into an over-the-top villain, School shows sympathy for the devil. Cusack emerges as lonely and high-strung, and in her funniest scene, Dewey preys on her weakness for alcohol and Stevie Nicks. Cusak's eyes light up when she hears a jukebox's opening licks of "White-Winged Dove" and she tipsily sings along, but the film doesn't take the joke to humiliating extremes.
School only hits a discordant note in its depiction of an effete student (Brian Falduto) who becomes the band's costume designer and inspires predictable Liza Minnelli references. But frankly, in the era of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," I'm no longer sure what qualifies as offensive stereotyping.
School of Rock alternates between living up to movie cliches and lampooning them -- you could call it Mr. Zeppelin's Opus. Apparently it takes talents from film's fringes to create a satisfying commercial product. Attend School, and Black and his star students will rock you like a hurricane.