The most conventionally tilted movie that director Richard Linklater or scenarist Mike White have been involved with, “The School of Rock” is a genial comedy toplining Jack Black as a rock ‘n’ roll lifer/loser teaching everything he knows to a classroom of 10-year-olds. Although a tad quirkier than, say, “Kindergarten Cop” or “Daddy Day Care,” this high-concept, one-gimmick pic won’t automatically attract grownups. Key to tapping sleeper potential will lie in convincing teen to thirtysomething auds that “School” isn’t just a kidpic — and that semistar Black is reason enough to see a movie. Which, in this case, happens to be true.
First seen annoying his blase bandmates with stadium-scale, over-the-top Rock God moves and riffing, Black’s Dewey Finn is the consummate stalled-adolescent headbanger. Waking up next ayem with a bad hangover combined with general damage from the prior night’s stage dive/pratfall, he gets a double shot of bad news. First, longtime pal Ned (White), goaded by prissy g.f. Patty (Sarah Silverman), demands Dewey’s rent must be paid — even if it means latter must get actual gainful employment. (Balking, Dewey protests “I serve society by rocking!”) Second, everyone else in Dewey-founded Loverboy-type hard-rock unit No Vacancy has just voted him out of the band.
Thus desperation drives protag to pretend he is respected substitute teacher Ned when he happens to answer a call to Ned from Manhattan’s most prestigious private prep school, Horace Green Elementary. Showing up in his roadie van and some scraped-together “real world” clothes, Dewey barely manages to fool principal Rosalie Mullins (Joan Cusack), then tells his classroom of junior overachievers to take an all-day recess.
After a few days of this, the students are restless. Fortunately, Dewey discovers many of them already play in the school band, deciding on the spot to turn their M.I.A. curriculum into one long rehearsal. His goal: To use the kids as his backing unit in an upcoming Battle of the Bands contest.
This plan rolls with credulity-straining ease, as several students switch from classical to electric musicianship, while others are “assigned” roles as backup singers, tech crew, stylist, even groupie. The most type-A child in the bunch (Miranda Cosgrove) is fittingly appointed band manager.
Temporary disaster strikes when Patty and Ned expose Dewey’s ruse, just as a nighttime meeting with persnickety parents is going south. But the kids use their ingenuity to get themselves and their teacher to the battle just in time, where of course they wow a jaded crowd.
Linklater and White avoid opportunities for excess cuteness, generally letting adults get the laughs while allowing the juveniles some quizzical dignity. White scores some felicitous moments in another of his patented pasty ubernerd roles, while Cusack is very good in one of her more sizable parts of late.
But the whole show is basically Black’s, and while he has done variations on this ranting, cartoon-rawk chubster before (not least as one half of satirical outfit Tenacious D), “School of Rock” is ideally suited to harness his shtick as its engine. He really can riff and shriek like every bedroom Led Zep fantasist dreams of doing.
Combined with hilarious physical business and perfectly overearnest delivery of pseudocool lines like, “Let your fingers do the rocking!,” he pretty much single-handedly keeps the formulaic progress funny. His performances of such originals as “Step Off” and “Math Is a Wonderful Thing,” not to mention numerous classic rock staples (“Smoke on the Water,” etc.) are worth admission price in themselves.
Design and tech aspects are solidly handled; natch, soundtrack manages to incorporate large lineup of oldies as well as tracks actually performed by Black and junior cast members.