School of Rock, The: Linklater’s Comedy, Starring Jake Blake

The School of Rock is one of the best-reviewed films of the year–despite anxiety by the filmmakers and Paramount studio before this rock ‘n’ roll family comedy received its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, in September. Rated PG-13, School of Rock may be one of the few American movies around that could be attended–and enjoyed–by both parents and children, a rare sight in today’s cinema.

School of Rock sounds like a formulaic, high-concept comedy. After all, its premise is rather simple: Jack Blake plays Dewey Finn, a wannabe lead guitarist and singer who’s expelled out of his own band. To make ends meet, he’s forced to take a substituting-teaching job at a prep-school. Once there, slowly and methodically, Finn transforms his fifth-graders into a rocking ensemble, leading them to a Battle of the Band competition against adult contenders.

Anyone who knows the filmmakers, screenwriter Mike White, director Richard Linklater, and star Jake Black, should have realized that nothing they do is formulaic or conventional. In fact, jointly they have given the story a delectably edgy and offbeat spin, in line with their previous cinematic efforts.

One of the most unique talents to emerge from the new American independent film movement of the 1990s, Linklater made a splash with his second feature film, Slacker, an insightful look at disaffected youth culture. Based in Austin, Texas, he is a proponent of making intimate, personal, regional films, such as his hit comedy, Dazed and Confused (1993), which is considered to be his masterpiece.

Over the past decade Linklater continued to impress audiences with such films as Before Sunrise, an intellectual date movie starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, which garnered him the best director award at the Berlin Film festival, and the critically acclaimed Waking Life, an animation fantasy about, yes, the meaning of life!

Linklater says he got excited upon reading Mike White’s screenplay for School of Rock, though initially feared that inevitable comparisons might be made with Dead Poets Society (which made a star out of the young Ethan Hawke) and also concerned the education of rich kids in a prep-school albeit done in a serious, dramatic way.

White, who is quickly becoming one of the most original and quirkiest writers in Hollywood, was not so concerned. Critics have singled White’s previous films, Chuck & Buck, which won awards at the Deauville Film Festival (in France) as a highlight of the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. Based on Chuck & Buck, and White’s follow-up, The Good Girl, it’s not easy to categorize his particular and peculiar brand of writing, which blends ideas and moods in creating resonant comedies with serious dramatic overtones.

Raised in the Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena, White attended Wesleyan University, an ivy league college in Connecticut. His initial ambition was to write plays in New York, but when a fellow Wesleyan alumnus offered him a job in Hollywood he couldn’t resist moving back West.

Like other writers of his generation, White began his career in television, first as a supervising producer on the young adult drama series, Dawson’s Creek, and then the critically praised drama series, Freaks and Geeks. In 2001, he was ready for “bigger challenges” and created the TV drama, Pasadena, which aired on Fox.

It was White’s idea to cast Black in School of Rock’s lead role. Black’s character, Dewey Finn, was both familiar and different to the actor, as he notes: “I am the singer, songwriter, guitarist of my own band Tenacious D, and Finn is the singer, songwriter and guitarist of his own band, No Vacancy, except that they kick him out. However, while rock ‘n’ roll is a significant part of Black’s life, rock ‘n’ roll is the only thing in Finn’s life.

White, who lived next door to Black for three years, had been wanting to write a film geared specifically to Black’s unique personality and talent. “Jack is a great performer, a terrific musician, and the perfect anti-hero for our times,” says White. “He’s kind of unhinged in that fun way that Willie Wonka is, and I Kept having this idea about him jamming around with a bunch of kids.”

With Black’s comedic style (shown recently in Shallow Hal) and White’s clever script, School of Rock already exceeded the parameters of traditional comedy. But when the writer and producer Scott (The Hours) Rudin recruited director Linklater, they knew that they had someone at the helm who could take it even further and deeper. Not surprisingly, Linklater has also shown penchant for making movies with a heavy influence of rock ‘n’ roll.

“I am a big fan of Jack and Mike,” says Linklater, “and Jack’s character, a struggling musician willing to do almost anything to help realize his dreams, reminded me of my formative years as a filmmaker. For Black, Linklater’s contribution to the film’s overall impact was immeasurable. He explains: “White brings edge to his stories, and Linklater brings reality, honesty, and believability. He reins me in, which is important, because I’m always going ten miles too far over the top. So when I go a little too crazy, Linklater brings me back to reality.”

Not unlike the actor who portrays him, the fiery Finn is on the verge of explosion throughout School of Rock. First, he gives a volatile performance with his band, launching into a long guitar solo and stage-diving into the crowd with no one there to catch him. Next, while masquerading as his roommate, substitute teacher Ned Schneebly (played by Mike White), Finn discharges lectures on the wonders of rock and the evils of ‘The Man’ to a wide-eyed class of fifth graders. Finally, Finn ignites his students into giving the performance of their lives at the Battle of the Bands.

It was also White’s recommendation to hire Joan Cusack (the less-known sister of John) to play the straight-laced Rosalie Mullins, the always uptight–unless she’s had a few beers–principal of the prestigious school where Finn is substitute teaching. “Joan is awesome,” says White, “It was great watching her character crack. She usually plays these sort of blithe spirits. So it was funny to see her as the uptight, buttoned-down administrator.

For White, “the greatest fun was to watch Joan and Jack and the kids go at it.” Judging by the film’s commercial appeal, the large American public that has embraced School of Rock shares that fun as well.