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School of Rock (Widescreen Edition)

Paramount // PG-13 // March 2, 2004
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted February 28, 2004 | E-mail the Author
I've really liked Jack Black in the movies of his that I've seen, a list that, after a glance at the IMDb, turned out to be considerably larger than I originally thought. As memorable as he was in flicks like Orange County, Saving Silverman, and High Fidelity, he's mostly popped up throughout his career as a supporting player. In School of Rock, Black is yanked from the sidelines for a role that ought to be comfortable for someone who makes up half of the greatest band on Earth. Black stars as Dewey Finn, a musician so passionate that he refuses to let anything as mundane as a job stand in the way of the dream he's spent his life relentlessly pursuing. Dewey hasn't left the theatrics of '70s rock behind, prone to twenty minute guitar solos and propelling himself into a disinterested crowd. His bandmates in No Vacancy are more interested in getting signed than rockin' to Dewey's exacting specifications, leaving him broke, without a band, and soon to be kicked out of the apartment he shares with Ned Schneebly (Mike White). Ned was once a Satanic sex god of a bassist but has long since left that life blowin' in the wind, preferring to toil away as a substitute teacher while clawing his way towards full certification. Already a couple grand in the hole to Ned and his girlfriend (Sarah Silverman), they insist that Black pay his share of the rent this month or find someone else to bleed dry. To drum up some cash, Dewey poses as Ned when Principal Rosalie Mullins (Joan Cusack) from Horace Green, a prestigious academy that pays its subs $650 a week, comes a'callin'. At first, Dewey does his best to avoid anything approximating teaching, but then he stumbles upon his students performing in music class. He's surrounded by immensely talented musicians, certain to win the local Battle of the Bands competish and snag the $20,000 grand prize. The kids are naïve enough to be duped into believing that their rock band is a secret class project, but their circle of influences begins and ends with the likes of P. Diddy and Xtina. It's up to Dewey to...well, you've seen the title in big, bold letters at the top of the them in the way of rock.

School of Rock benefits greatly from having an extensive amount of talent on both ends of the camera. Director Richard Linklater's filmography speaks for itself, having helmed Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Waking Life, among others. Mike White, who also has a small role in the movie, wrote a couple of episodes of what I'd consider without hesitation to be my favorite television series of all time (no, not Dawson's Creek; Freaks and Geeks), as well as Orange County and indie fave Chuck and Buck. But, of course, the movie ultimately rests on the shoulders of Jack Black. It'd be simple to take the easy route and make Dewey a dim-witted jackass who eventually learns about life and :sniffles: love with the help of his newfound young pals. Dewey isn't dumb, though, and as self-absorbed as he is, Black, Linklater, and White have created a character that somehow remains hopelessly endearing throughout. Even in the early moments of the movie when Dewey parasitically tries to convince Ned to dump his girlfriend so he can continue to sponge off of him, I still found myself rooting for the struggling rocker. Black is bursting with the manic energy that helped make some of his other recent movies so much fun to watch, but it's focused, and Dewey isn't any more over-the-top than he needs to be. The kids are all great too, and I shudder to think how difficult it must have been to cast a movie with such young actors who also have to be talented musicians. That this is the only film credit for many of Black's junior co-stars makes it seem all the more impressive. School of Rock is smartly written and directed, sweet without being cloying or saccharine, and funny without resorting to cheap laughs or gross-out humor. Even though a note in one of the extras seems to suggest that this was always filmed with a PG-13 in mind, I wouldn't have too many qualms suggesting it as a family flick. There isn't any offensive imagery, the movie's light on profanity, and of the "drug references" that apparently netted the PG-13 rating, the only one I can remember is a one-liner joke by Black that another teacher must be smoking crack. School of Rock is just a blast to watch, and it's stood up well enough to repeat viewings that I think this DVD will make a solid addition to most readers' DVD collections.

Video: School of Rock is presented in anamorphic widescreen at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. It looks like any recent theatrical release should, transferred from pristine source material with no obvious authoring concerns sneaking in. The image is reasonably crisp and detailed, though not remarkably so. No real complaints, but average enough that I'm struggling to find more than a couple of sentences to describe it. A separate full-frame release is also available.

Audio: The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, encoded at a bitrate of 448Kbps, doesn't really raise the goblet of rock, mostly sounding like a typical comedy. The bulk of the action is anchored front and center, where the movie's dialogue comes through cleanly and clearly. Not surprising considering that this is a movie with the word "rock" in the title, things open up more when the music kicks in, particularly during the band's performances. The soundtrack is great -- Black contributed to the writing of most of the original songs, which include some musical accompaniment by the indie rockers of the Mooney Suzuki. Among the other bands represented on the soundtrack, both in original recordings and in covers, are AC/DC, Black Sabbath, The Clash, Cream, David Bowie, Deep Purple, The Doors, KISS, Led Zeppelin, The Ramones, The Stooges, The Velvet Underground, and The Who. Hmmm...fumbling for a lame concert analogy...The School of Rock's six-channel audio isn't a high-voltage rock show, but it's a decent performance without any notable flaws and is probably very representative of the way the movie sounded theatrically.

Other audio options include a stereo surround mix, a Dolby Digital 5.1 French dub, closed captions, and subtitles in French and Spanish.

Supplements: Apparently the producers behind this DVD studied up on extras -- not only are quite a few packed onto this DVD, but for the most part, they're much better than average. First up is a pair of audio commentaries, beginning with a pairing of Jack Black and director Richard Linklater. Though not deeply technical by any stretch, Black and Linklater keep the banter going for nearly two hours, heavy on comments about characters and the actors who played 'em, how various drafts of the script differed from what eventually wound up splashed across 2,951 screens nationwide, and assorted tales o' production. Some specific notes I scribbled down include what may or may not technically be a cameo by Linklater, Black receiving an on-set Splinter Cell tutorial from one of his co-stars, the theory that it's impossible to rock in front of your parents, a subtle Volvo jab, the bowling ball-ish distribution of Black's weight, a different approach for the ending, and the difficulty in finding some excuse for Dewey to leap in as a sub. They make a lot of references to deleted scenes and shortened sequences, actually, but unfortunately, none of these are provided on the DVD outside of brief glimpses in other extras. Linklater does admit near the end of the commentary that he's not big on outtakes, but they still would have been nice to see in some form. The second commentary is a "Kids' Kommentary", and even though few people on this planet are as smitten with alliteration as I am, a line has to be drawn somewhere. It's cute but kind of repetitive, as a small army of children point out their favorite bits and alternate between praising and mocking various members of the cast. Probably more fun to record than to listen to, this track still has enough funny moments for it to be worth playing in the background.

It's gotten to the point where I wince whenever I review featurettes on a DVD. So many of them amount to little more than extended trailers with fluffy, insubstantial Access Hollywood-grade interviews and a dollop of on-set footage. Thankfully, "Lessons Learned on School of Rock" (24:50) does it right. Enormously entertaining, "Lessons..." interviews most of the main cast, along with comments from Richard Linklater, music consultant Jim O'Rourke, and writer Mike White. Most of the attention is focused squarely on Jack Black, but the others chime in frequently as well, most memorably in debates about the usefulness of articles in film titles and the kids' backgrounds in music. There's also unintentionally incincidery footage from a scene that didn't make it into the movie. "Jack Black's Pitch to Led Zeppelin" (3:36) has the movie's star and a horde of extras begging to use "The Immigrant Song" in the soundtrack, with their letterboxed plea captured on film. It worked, and the footage is bookended with comments from Black as well as a snippet of its use in the movie.

The second page of extras begins with a music video (3:39) that reunites Black with a smattering of his prepubescent co-stars, intercut between a bunch of clips from the movie. "Kids' Video Diary: Toronto Film Festival" (8:14) follows Black's bandmates as they prepare for the movie's premiere, wolfing down breakfast, studying with a tutor, fielding questions at a press conference, and schmoozing at an afterparty. Also included is an installment in MTV's Diary series (16:32), featuring a day in the life of Jack Black as he rehearses for School of Rock and jams with Tenacious D bandmade Kyle Gass. The episode, helmed by Liam Lynch (of Sifl and Olly fame, also having directed a bunch of Tenacious D stuff), has Black rushing through an intricate morning routine when he's late for a rehearsal, sucking the barbeque sauce off a cheeseburger, relentlessly clawing at a bug, and detailing his One of Every Animal Diet with a McSurf and Turf Deluxe. "There's nothing you can really do to prepare to rock. Y'know, do you prepare to eat a delicious meal? No. Are you hungry? Then you're gonna eat it...and I'm hungry for rock."

The DVD-ROM portion of the disc includes an archive of the movie's website, Dewey Finn's Chalkboard of Rock (with biographies of dozens of bands, grouped by genre), a Quicktime video of Black rattling off a list of some of his favorite bands, and an excerpt from the disc's audio commentary. Rounding out the extras are letterboxed, non-anamorphic trailers for School of Rock, a teaser for Nicole Kidman's The Stepford Wives remake, and Paycheck. School of Rock sports a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack (448 Kbps), while the others are in Dolby stereo surround. School of Rock is divided into eighteen chapters (the promotional copy reviewed here didn't include an insert; dunno if retail copies will or not), and the disc sports a set of 16x9-enhanced animated menus.

Conclusion: One of the better comedies I've seen of 2003, School of Rock would've deserved a recommendation even if it had been dumped on DVD with no extras whatsoever. Not only are there a bunch of extras, they're actually worth checking out, bucking the trend of quantity over quality that's been littering DVDs over the past couple of years. I would never consider ending a review on a note like "This DVD rocks!", but the fact that I briefly considered it should offer some indication as to how highly recommended School of Rock is. Just make sure to keep an eye out for the "Widescreen Collection" banner at the top to avoid picking up the wrong disc.
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Highly Recommended

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