One of the most warmly enjoyable studio comedies I’ve seen in a while. Go while it’s still in theaters, preferably to a matinee show, so you can laugh with a full audience.
Director Richard Linklater is excellent at making quirky little films about “losers”. Slacker, his feature debut, was one of the key films that launched the indie revolution of the 90’s, and Dazed and Confused, his 70’s high school saga, has become a beloved stoner classic. The title of that film, lifted from one of Led Zeppelin’s first singles, points to his understanding of how huge music is to youth culture. I was blown away by the opening of Waking Life, in which painterly swaths of color were superimposed over video footage of the recording of the film’s score. I’d seen a similar technique in French films, notably Un heros tres discret, but the overlay of documentary and animation (documation?) spoke to a joy observed in creating music.
Jack Black entered the mainstream consciousness playing a ferociously opinionated record store clerk in High Fidelity. Those of us who’d been following his work in the acoustic duo Tenacious D already knew he was a master of hilarious, passionate rock. It’s been somewhat frustrating that every film role he’s chosen since – Enemy of the State, Saving Silverman, Orange County, need I go on – has failed to utilize his full potential for inspiring wackiness (not counting the bootleg pilot Heat Vision and Jack, because, well, it ain’t commercially available, and most people don’t know it exists). Which is why this film, scripted to fit his strengths by his buddy Mike White (who also penned Chuck and Buck and The Good Girl) is so satisfying.
The plot is “fish-out-of-water” meets “motley crue of misfits win the big game”: dirt-simple and predictable as a sitcom, which is good, because it puts the focus on the performances. Black, playing his prototypical manchild slob (it might as well be the same exact dude from High Fidelity), is kicked out of his band for playing too many wankathon solos. He intercepts a substitute teacher gig meant for his dorky roommate and ends up babysitting (and ignoring) twenty or so preppy sixth-graders. But when he eavesdrops on their classical music lesson, he realizes that THIS is the ensemble meant to conquer the Battle of the Bands – if only he can teach them to be cool and unleash the rock stars within!
It’s incredibly fun to watch Black bounce around the room, playing AC/DC and Deep Purple riffs through a tiny clip-on Marshall stack and wailing in his cartoonishly elastic voice, unafraid of appearing ridiculous. But if you knew anything about his personality, you were expecting that going in. The true surprise here is how genuine the kids are, and how exciting it is to see them discover they’re good at something. (In case you had doubts, these kids all have legitimate chops, just like Black.) If, like me, you think everything that’s been on the radio for the past ten years is shit, the Battle of the Bands climax should paste a huge grin on your face.
This movie has been kicking serious ass at the box office for the past couple of weeks. I sincerely hope it’s kids who are laughing, and that they go out the next day and start rock bands.
Writing and playing music is easy and awesome!!