For the benefit of the uninitiated, Jack Black is a force of nature. The Tenacious D rocker and film-starring funnyman is a one-man band who makes his music with a bizarre patois of nicknames and euphemisms, a mock-serious, mock-rock mythology of goblets and stone tablets and "the hammer of the gods," and a flurry of gestures and secret handshakes and guitar-god theatrics. Not since Groucho Marx has the screen hosted such a burst of verbal and physical comedic anarchy, though Black's benevolent devils also bring to mind the other screen-star Jack with their eyebrow-arching, eye-popping, maniacal glee.
With Richard Linklater's School of Rock, Black finally has the ultimate showcase for his untamed energies. As written by Mike White--who also scripted Black's loveable-slob triumph in Orange County--School of Rock efficiently and almost stealthily channels any number of inspirational mentor movies about kids learning to take pride in themselves into a Jack Black vehicle about fighting "the man." White's invention is to take the oft-recycled The Bad News Bears model (see last year's Hardball or, rather, don't see it) and graft it onto Mr. Holland's Opus.
White handily motors through the exposition: Black's ne'er-do-well Dewey Finn, after being dumped from a hard-rock band, nabs a substitute teaching gig meant for his hopelessly unassuming roommate, Ned Schneebly (White). Finn intends to ride out the gig by putting his feet up and letting his prep-school pre-teens waste away their school days. Though he's deaf to the class overachiever's cry "My parents don't spend fifteen thousand dollars a year for recess!", Finn pulls an illegal U-turn when he overhears the kids' music class. In a brilliant sequence blending White's semi-conventional plotting with Black's improvisational genius, Black unloads the contents of his smoke-spewing van and gives each student a rock-band role, from keyboardist to groupie.
From here, Finn dispenses a steady stream of rock philosophy and life lessons, from music appreciation and history to standing up for oneself. Black's elfin mischeviousness has cross-generational appeal in its rebellious denigration of modern music that sucks and exaltation of music, life, and fun. Of course, the teacher film model must also upend the teacher's own cynicism, so Finn sets out with a soul-crushing lecture about "the man" punctuated with a manic "Just give up!" but soon reclaims his life philosophy that "One great rock show can change the world." Resistance comes in the form of tightly wound Principal Mullins; as Mullins, Joan Cusack, too, gets it, pumping new life into the stereotypically prim woman waiting to burst (Cusack scores points with a subdued Stevie Nicks rock-out and a climactic, sheepish admission to a roomful of parents).
In Linklater, the Black and White team have a kindred spirit (the director previously helmed Dazed and Confused, a latter day American Graffiti about rock and booze-soaked seventies rebellion) and another natural talent: Linklater seems incapable of making a bad film. Linklater brings convincing grunge to the film's conventions, while White's script Keeps It Simple, Stupid with a predictable but satisfying musical climax. At the film's center, Black comes out with an awe-inspiring aria of self-expression, a virtuosic a capella monologue describing the act he envisions; Linklater films it in a long take that slowly and pointedly takes in the whole room of dumbstruck kids. It's a funny moment and, impossibly, an affecting one encapsulating the film's themes of deep care for craft and teaching by example.
The lasting impressions of the spirited School of Rock come from the musically talented student actors (chief among them Joey Gaydos Jr.'s guitar-playing Zack, Maryam Hassan's singing sensation Tomika, Kevin Clark's burgeoning punk drummer Kevin, and Miranda Cosgrove's anal-retentive band-manager Summer) and Black; none matches the tiresome, picture-perfect paradigm of central casting. Under the end credits, Linklater again summarizes the film's aesthetic by, in an unbroken take, showing the kids play a song and Black improvise through the lead vocal, passing off solos. Fun (and funny) this infectious doesn't come along often; you owe it to yourself to get schooled.