The Importance of Stickin’ it to the Man in Jack Black’s ‘School of Rock’
School of Rock is a 2003 musical comedy about a man who gets kicked out of a rock band and becomes a substitute teacher of a strict elementary private school, only to try and turn his students into a rock band.
So they say to be noticed, you’ve got to do something different, something maybe even crazy to get seen, and few actors ‘got seen’ more by this bit of thinking than Jack Black, who found himself wallowing in familiar, unremarkable roles for ten years in the 90s before it all changed in 2000 with the release of Stephen Frears‘ High Fidelity, a John Cusack drama that finally gave Black the stage to let loose. It changed everything for the actor, who truly burst out of obscurity and into international stardom after he drew much attention for his bombastic portrayal of a rogue music aficionado.
A string of solid hits followed for the next three years until he landed the part of Dewy Finn in Richard Linklater‘s School of Rock, the highest grossing film of his career where he was the lead. It’s a film about, well … a rogue music aficionado … who gets the chance to expose what it means to be so to the next generation and is a surprisingly affecting story that somehow restrains the actors’ explosive on-screen behavior while at the same time, letting it flourish.
Linklater, whose films are a diverse collection of honest romances – including the Before series – and experimental work, such as Boyhood, taps right into what makes Black so watchable, giving him immense space and opportunity to generate incredible momentum and believability in a character with a genuinely earned arc. The film was highly-praised on release, mostly for Black’s inspiring, manic performance, and became a huge box office hit. It also features a very honest and endearing lead character, one that deserves a closer look.
The story is pretty straight forward. After Finn gets kicked out of his rock band for his wild onstage tactics, he spends his days lazily loafing around the apartment in need of cash until he takes a call intended for his roommate. An elementary prep school is looking for a substitute teacher and so he concocts a scheme to secretly pretend to be his friend and get the job himself, looking for some easy cash. He ends up in charge of a class of talented musical kids whom he then decides should form their own band. Hurdles come in the curious and protective Rosalie “Roz” Mullins (Joan Cusack) and the students themselves, who aren’t quite sure what to make of their new unorthodox teacher. Eventually, he wins them over, teaching them through music and bonding with them through the spirit of Rock & Roll.
It’s mostly a family friendly movie that, if you’ll pardon the obvious expression, hits all the right notes with a mix of good, clean, comedy, romance, and great music. It never really strives for reality, instead, focusing, as it should, on the relationships between Finn and the kids, building trust and opening minds – on boths sides of the teacher’s desk. Sure, the students are awash in broad stereotypes, but which classroom isn’t? These are good child actors and all do convincing turns as they take to Finn’s seemingly ridiculous plans to help them break out of their structured lives and learn to rock out.
So what makes Finn so memorable … and dare I say … important? He’s a classic oaf at the start, a messy, self-absorbed loser who is untrustworthy, borish, and irresponsible, barely making it as human being. It’s the perfect character template for building a story of redemption, and yet, Linklater, working from a script by Mike White, is careful not to fall into the trappings of these tropes, never giving Finn the ‘makeover’ moment of sorts, or even the ‘ah-ha’ revelation that often defines many in the lot. Instead, Finn is sustained as a figure of evolution that actually reveals what was always there, waiting for the chance to find the proper personal expression.
Think about a moment midway through when he’s already got the kids hooked into the idea of creating a rock band for a local competition. These children have been raised on classical music and are well-trained in orchestral instruments, so Finn needs to show them what a real rocker is about. So, as he often does, he straps on an electric guitar and explains that Rock & Roll isn’t about doing things perfectly, asking the students to tell him what they think it’s really about. Now keep in mind these are elementary students and are only peripherally familiar with the music their teacher is talking about. However, they take some guesses, including scoring chicks and getting wasted, which Finn aggressively dismisses as missing the point. He finally gets the answer he wants from Leonard (Cole Hawkins), who correctly answers that it’s about stickin’ it to the man. Right. That nails it, but Finn reminds him that in music, you can’t just say that. You have to let the listeners feel it with your blood and guts.
He goes on to say that Rock breaks the rules, that one has to get mad at the man to make it work. To help them understand what that means, he urges the kids to direct some anger at him, as he, for the demonstration, will be “the man.” He challenges them to find the guts within themselves to tell him off, and so they comply, offering some sharp (and very funny) barbs, that are surprisingly personal. What’s great about this is how he accepts these criticisms – although Billy (Brian Falduto) strikes a little too closely with one of the funniest lines in the movie. Finn is a man who knows what he is, not proud of himself for that but entirely confident of his passion to move others through music. That’s a rare thing in movies, where the main character isn’t entirely redeemable, staying true to the core definitions of his infallibility, yet still able to turn things around. The film commits to this well, and even has some twists in the ending, finding a way to balance all this and stay very satisfying.
That Finn would let these kids so readily belittle him is sort of setup like a joke, and indeed does earn some laughs, but what we as the audience take from it is really the larger message. Here’s a guy we accept as the ‘hero’ of the movie, who is, by this point, a person whom we should not like, and no one who should be in any educationally authoritative position with children. What we don’t expect though is that Finn agrees, and his sudden willingness to let the slings and arrows of criticism fly is a jarring moment that really makes us a little off balance at first. When the first student shouts at him, we tense, thinking that well, no way Finn’s going to take that, but instead, he not only welcomes it, but spins it around so that the child totally gets it. When the next blow comes, it’s a stinging shot, and again, Finn absorbs it, praising once again the intent. The thing we learn that makes Finn so remarkable is that Finn actually accepts who is he, something so few people do. In fact, it’s crippling to many who struggle to define themselves by social standards that constantly fluctuate. Finn doesn’t fit the norm, probably long knowing that he’s a figure on the fringe. When the shots come, they are no doubt, nothing he hasn’t heard before. That’s the thing we see in his face, that while he’s educating them on the power of standing up and breaking conformity, he’s numb to the things that would wholly set others back. Rock & Roll is about fighting back. Being strong … is about being yourself.
Finn is such a great character, a unique and challenging bundle of momentum that probably no one could have pulled off quite so well as Black. He’s basically playing himself, being a talented musician already, and there’s not much about Finn that seems remotely divisible from the actor. In many ways, his performance in High Fidelity feels like the origins of Finn, making it easy to pretend that they are the same character, where School of Rock is sort of the spin-off of the other. I like to think so.