Rock around the classroom

Jack Black gives the performance of his career in 'School of Rock.'

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What's funny about "The School of Rock," the new comedy by director Richard Linklater and screenwriter Mike White?

"What's funny," said star Jack Black after its première at the Toronto Film Festival, "is ... that improving, guiding, and taking kids to a higher plane of knowledge ... is just wrong! That's what a lot of humor is about - how wrong things are!"

I don't think Mr. Black is against education, but he does seem to share his character's view that school systems are "the man," as worthy of rebellion as any other power-based institution. What gives teachers the right to mold children's minds in currently fashionable ways? Why couldn't - oh, a rock singer, for example - do a better job? Especially since rebellion is what rock, properly conceived, is all about?

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That sums up the plot of "The School of Rock," a lithe and lovable movie that could easily become one of the year's biggest hits, and a major player in the Oscar race to boot.

Black plays Dewey Finn, a high-octane rocker whose dismal career hits a new low when he's sacked by his own band. On top of this, he's desperate for rent money. The landlord, Ned Schneebly, is his best friend, but Ned's wife has run out of patience with their deadbeat tenant ages ago, and demands that he pay up or get out.

Ned the landlord earns most of his living as a substitute teacher, and when destitute Dewey finds out about a long-term opening in a nearby elementary school, he impersonates Ned and lands the job. His idea is to let the kids have all-day recesses while he sleeps off last night's carousing and collects a regular paycheck.

This is a very demanding private school, though, and Dewey's fourth-grade pupils actually insist that he educate them. This leads him to a brainstorm: All these 9-year-old whiz kids know how to play or sing classical music and show tunes, so he'll teach them how to rock and make them into a jivin' pop combo.

Maybe they'll even win a local Battle of the Bands that's coming up - a victory that would bring Dewey fame, fortune, and revenge against the group that threw him out. But how to accomplish this without letting the school's stiff, rule-ridden principal (Joan Cusack) find out what's going on when the classroom door is closed and the electric instruments are out of their hiding places?

A revealing sign that Black respects education, despite his irreverent remarks about it, is that "The School of Rock" consistently celebrates the learning process. True, it's portrayed in terms very different from those of, say, last year's drama "The Emperor's Club," which took a sappy traditionalist viewpoint. Still, everyone in this "School" learns from everyone else.

Dewey's pupils teach him that smartness counts as much as coolness. He teaches them to use critical thinking and question "the man" when necessary. Experience teaches Ned to stand up for himself. Getting to know Dewey teaches the principal to loosen up a bit. And everyone - including the audience - learns that "low culture" can be as energizing and fun, if not as rich and complex, as the snooty high-mindedness that controlled the school before Dewey arrived to blow the place wide open.

All this aside, "The School of Rock" is first and foremost a very funny film, and a very pleasant one that doesn't really have a villain. Credit for its hilarity goes largely to Black, who gives the performance of his career as a character who might have seemed merely coarse and crude in less gifted hands.

Cheers also go to Mr. White, who wrote the inventive screenplay and plays Ned the nebbishy landlord - a perfect role for White's self-effacing style.

And last but far from least there's Richard Linklater, who directed the picture. He's a versatile filmmaker, with first-rate pictures as different as the experimental "Slacker" and "Waking Life," the dialogue-driven "Before Sunrise," and the teenage romp "Dazed and Confused."

"The School of Rock" is one of his most overtly commercial movies, which will help sustain his career by showing that he's financially as well as creatively savvy. His next movie is a sequel to "Before Sunrise," due next year, but I hope he collaborates with Black and White again as soon as possible. They're a rockin' trio.

Rated PG-13 for vulgarity and drug-related material.

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