Lessons in the Key Of PG

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MUSIC MAN: Black's Dewey helps a classical-cello student (Rebecca Brown) make the switch to playing thumbing bass guitar

Dewey Finn, hard-rockin' guitarist, has the music in him. It's just that no one wants it to get out. His bandmates aren't crazy about his three-hour solos, nor is the audience. When Dewey throws himself into a mosh pit of revelers, no one catches him. Fired by the band, he holes up with a friend who is too meek to say no but who does suggest that Dewey help with the rent by selling one of his guitars. The artiste is aghast: "Would you ask Picasso to sell one of his guitars?"

Since Dewey is played by Jack Black, in whose short, round frame the Tasmanian Devil apparently resides — and since his friend is played by this film's writer, Mike White, who also scripted High Fidelity and TV's Freaks and Geeks, and since the director is Richard Linklater of Dazed and Confused fame — you might guess that The School of Rock is a skeptical, slackery satire with spasms of irony and angst. You'd be wrong. The movie is a joyous, sloppy, quasi-inspirational comedy that means to stride down the middle of the road, gathering all significant movie demographics in its embrace.

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In other words, it's a Scott Rudin movie. Over the past dozen years, the producer has built a niche for pop comedies written by bright outsiders whom he brings into the fold and shepherds toward success. He has done it with Paul Rudnick (Addams Family Values, In & Out), Andrew Niccol (The Truman Show), Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut) and Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums). Now White gets his Rudin awakening. The result is a comedy that dares to be not different.

Dewey, desperate for work, bluffs his way into a job as a substitute teacher at a stuffy private school. Being ignorant of any subject fifth-graders might be taught, he instead initiates a class rock-band project with the idea of entering his charges in a citywide battle of the bands. He auditions the students and finds a few musicians. Others he designates as backup singers or security detail. The movie's assignment for one kid was apparently to represent every gay stereotype a prepubescent boy could embody; he asks to be in charge of "fashion and decorating" and proclaims that his major musical influence is Liza Minnelli.

Two antic, indeed antique notions are at work here: that today's children are too docile, too attentive to their teachers, too respectful of their parents, and that what they really need is for a loutish renegade to give them a killer dose of (shout this out, as Black does at the end of every second sentence) Rock 'N' Roll! Because what is that music all about? Stickin' It to the Man! And how can these future doctors and bankers best serve America? By Rocking!

The kids are won over, as Linklater and White must have been to the idea of going straight for Rudin. Black's energy is at once harnessed and released in a role that should earn the actor the stardom predicted since his supporting role in High Fidelity. Preening and wheedling, playing to the camera like Mick Jagger to a microphone, Black gives this unaffected, four-on-the-floor In-School Special the ardor, and innocence, of that old-time rock 'n' roll.