Richard Linklater’s new film “Before Midnight”, which opens this weekend after premiering at Sundance this Spring, arrives nine long years after its predecessor, “Before Sunset”. But we’re actually a little closer to the ten year anniversary of another, less beloved Linklater film, the light musical-comedy “School of Rock”, which, if you can believe it, turns a full decade old this October. At first blush, “School of Rock” seems like a decidedly minor effort, and accessible commercial effort not unlike his much-maligned remake of “Bad News Bears”, made just two years later. For a filmmaker of some prestige, Linklater is wildly inconsistent—like another of the early-90s indie breakouts, Steven Soderbergh, he is both prolific and not especially discriminating—and, following two low-budget formal experiments (“Waking Life” and “Tape”), “School of Rock” seems like a concession to the system to justify his continued personal outings, which had seen varying degrees of acclaim and success. It isn’t exactly the film most representative of Linklater’s interests and talents.
And yet, in its own way, “School of Rock” is one of Linklater’s strongest films to date. As one might expect, part of the appeal is the charismatic performance of its star, Jack Black, who here plays an unsuccessful musician named Dewey Finn posing as a substitute elementary teacher at a haughty private school. But the most compelling aspect of the performance is restraint, which Linklater draws out of Black in a way that nobody else had and nobody else has done since. (They did it again last year, with “Bernie,” though the second time around won both actor and director considerably more acclaim.)
It’s one of Black’s best turns precisely because Linklater reigns him in, refashioning an actor known for his manic juvenile energy as an aging loser holding desperately onto that element of his youth—and while the result is often funny, what’s more surprising is that it’s also quite sad. “School of Rock” is ostensibly a movie about buttoned-down schoolchildren learning the liberating effect of rock music, but at its heart it’s also a movie about an overly liberated man-child learning to appreciate the need for responsibility and structure. And it does all of this under the guise of family-friendly fun.
It’s easy to get the sense, with Linklater, that he is very consciously deciding to alternate between commercial and personal projects for the sake of his own continued viability as a filmmaker, as if agreeing tacitly to make “one for them” at least for each he makes for himself. This is the essence of directorial compromise, and it usually results in a pretty clear distinction between meaningful films and more superficial ones. “School of Rock” clearly belongs to the commercial side of this equation, but what’s interesting about the film is how deftly it weaves personal ideas into its essentially mainstream mechanics.
Though it bears all of the hallmarks of good PG-rated mainstream cinema—broad humor, adorable children, a tidy redemption narrative—it also manages to deal in earnest with many of the themes Linklater’s most personal and expressive films have often taken as their focus, like adolescent aimlessness and the desire for director or purpose. Much in the same way that “Before Sunset” builds and expands on the ideas brought into play by “Before Sunrise”, “School of Rock” looks back and the basic building blocks of “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused” and tries to assemble them into something more mature a decade-plus on.
Who is Dewey Finn, the struggling stoner at a loss for a dream, but one of the kids from “Slacker” seen a few years down the line, no longer wandering the streets in summer but forced to actually find a job? And what, after all, becomes of the highschool kids of “Dazed and Confused” after a decade of good times but no life plan? It’s a stretch to say that “School of Rock” actively follows up on either of these stories, such that they are, but surely it’s significant that Linklater made “Rock” at the same time as he made “Sunset”—it suggests his interest not only in returning to material he’d worked over as a younger filmmaker but, more broadly, it makes the case that aging and development and a sense of lost youth were very much on Linklater’s mind at the time.
What makes “School of Rock” such a hopeful movie isn’t that the young kids learn the meaning of freedom or how to let loose on the guitar, but that the loser at the center of the story is able to find something to latch onto after his extended adolescence, something which, if it isn’t quite “meaning”, at least puts him on course toward getting there. That’s not kids stuff.
"School of Rock" is playing at Manhattan's Film Forum this weekend, the screening of which will be preceded by an air guitar contest.