The Power of Rock ’n’ Roll Directing: ‘School of Rock’

This will come as huge news to some people, so I’ll put it in bold. I have a new favorite director of all time. I’ll bet you’re shocked. The title was previously held by hyperactive auteur Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Baby Driver, The World’s End) until a recent rediscovery of the filmography of Richard Linklater. Those who know me might remember his name from one of my rants on his many “meditations on the nature of time”. (Pretentious? I can’t be pretentious; I’m too brilliant!). There’s The Before Trilogy: a series of romantic dramas about a couple’s long conversations, each set apart nine years. You may also remember Boyhood, a coming-of-age story (and 2014 Best Picture nominee) filmed over twelve years following the same actors as they age in real-time. Both of these are absolutely artful, brilliant pieces of drama, and the products of heavy collaboration between Linklater and the actors he worked with across decades.

The other side of Linklater’s filmography belongs to his equally brilliant comedic work, particularly Slacker, Bernie, and especially Dazed and Confused. Similar to his previously listed “meditations on time” (you know what, it does sound pretentious but it’s no less true), Dazed captures an aimless moment in the high school characters’ lives that mirrors the teenage to twenty-something actors, albeit through the lens of seventies American culture. Linklater’s direction executes a lot of this through how he interacted with the ensemble cast; the then greenhorn encouraged every role to become its performer’s own.

Upon rediscovering how much I loved both sides, I began to dread rewatching a Linklater movie I had previously loved. School of Rock seems like such a corporate and star-driven family comedy, a stark contrast to the rebellious indie spirit of his other work. Yet this recent viewing instead proved to me what makes Linklater’s style so brilliant.

Jack Black plays Dewey, a wannabe rocker who has just been dropped by his band for hogging spotlight. The only time he feels alive is on stage, while he spends the rest of his time limp sleeping on a floor mattress in his friend’s living room. While substitute teaching under false pretenses, Dewey discovers that his pupils (including a tiny Miranda Cosgrove of iCarly fame) can perform music and takes advantage of their talents to enter a battle of the bands.

Fundamentally the script should not work. Dewey’s actions cross too far, and one joke breaks the movie too thoroughly for the rock ‘n’ roll ending’s narrative scotch tape. Yet forsooth, what heart! Black’s charismatic buffoonery covers a myriad of sins. The actor resists what must be a desperate selfish urge to skim over his misdeeds and instead leans into them with as much enthusiasm as his lighthearted tenderness. This has an odd effect; upon reflection, we feel as tricked as the school by Dewey’s charms.

Fortunately, the movie has enough fun and mirrors to occupy its short runtime. When Linklater chooses to highlight moments with his playful camera, the movie dazzles until all viewers become children learning to rock out. Almost every pupil is given a moment to shine as Dewey brings out the best of them, discovering their talents alongside them.

While of course not as brilliant as Linklater’s most fascinating works (not that many can compare to his masterful filmography), he brings intelligence to scenes when he wants to, and his direction of actors seems as collaborative as the relationship between Dewey and his pupils, bringing back his Dazed sensibilities. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and the director seems to apply the same philosophy to creating a character. Perhaps that is simply a side effect of the narrative’s focus on collaboration, but it’s a lovely thought.

Indeed, Linklater’s fingerprints are visible on film even if his artsy hand is tied behind this conventionally PG material (although the movie is rated PG-13). While Mike White wrote the movie (and plays Dewey’s roommate as he rediscovers the magic of rock), it’s no wonder the director would be drawn to this material, as he literally made the definitive movie on being a slacker, Slacker. At this point in his career, Linklater needs Dewey’s story. Look at the reverential way he moves the camera during the ‘Legend of the Rent’ scene; the director loves his awkward attempts at self-expression as much as Dewey comes to love his pupils’.

Dewey’s arc doesn’t undo his couch-surfing tendencies, but instead endears him to the joys of collaboration, even if in an unconventional place. Linklater similarly has found himself lightly accused of being unable to recognize the contributions of his below-the-line crew members early in his career. He may still consider himself a slacker whose art doesn’t always hit, mirroring Dewey’s lines about the next gig finally being when his band will blow up. But he’s learned that when working with others, as demonstrated by the Before Trilogy’s incredible writing trio of Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy, his art doesn’t just come out better, more truthful, and stronger for it; it’s a rock ‘n’ roll better time.

So often directors are praised for their control. Forcing actors to repeat the same scene over and over until they “get it right” is a standard improv joke in an impression of the artistic director. What makes Linklater stand out is his ability to step aside, to use his camera and authority to honor what everyone in the credits brings to the table. This movie is far from perfect, but it is a testament to a philosophy we more often should follow in our auteur-obsessed film culture.

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