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Rock enrolled

Substitute teacher Jack Black, every principal's nightmare, skips the 3 R's in 'School of Rock.'

September 07, 2003|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

Inside a dim rehearsal studio off Sunset Boulevard, Jack Black is tuning the guitar that rests on his belly. Behind him, a spiky-haired drummer starts the beat. A mop-top guitar player does his imitation Pete Townsend windmill stroke. A button-nosed keyboardist curves his delicate fingers over the keys. And the bass player, cool and aloof, nods rhythmically as she picks at the strings.

All eyes turn to Black, waiting, expecting ... something ... as if anything could happen at any moment. As, of course, it could.

Black sings, "Baby, we were getting straight A's.... " then stops. "We're not going to play 'School of Rock.' We're going to play ... 'Save the Animals,' " and with that he starts to improvise songs and lyrics. Bassist Rebecca Brown, 11, drops her jaw, shakes her head and laughs.

Reunited to practice for publicity gigs, the grade-school band members from "The School of Rock" (opening Oct. 3), a high-energy kids-against-the-odds comedy, take up where they left off, giggling at Black's off-the-wall antics.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 12, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Pete Townshend -- The last name of Who guitarist Pete Townshend was misspelled as Townsend in an article about Jack Black's new movie, "The School of Rock," in Sunday Calendar.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 14, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
These errors appeared in Sunday Calendar on Sept. 7:
Pete Townshend -- The Who guitarist's name was misspelled as Townsend in an article about Jack Black's new movie, "The School of Rock."

Mixing the frequently profane Black with kids seems an unusual project for the filmmakers. One of producer Scott Rudin's latest projects was "The Hours." Writer Mike White also wrote and acted in "The Good Girl" and "Chuck and Buck." Director Richard Linklater is known for "Dazed and Confused," "Slackers" and "Waking Life."

White and Rudin, most recently worked together on "Orange County," a comedy featuring Black, and afterward, they hatched the idea for a music-based comedy with kids. After White drafted a script tailored to Black's strengths, Rudin contacted Linklater. "They didn't want a traditional comedy," Linklater says. "I was challenged to pull off a studio comedy....

"It totally couldn't have worked," he adds. "I was willing to take that risk."

"The School of Rock" stars Black as Dewey Finn, a mangy, unemployed rocker posing as a substitute teacher in order to pay the rent. (White, once Black's neighbor in real life, plays Black's roommate, the unsuspecting teacher whose identity Black borrows.) Possessing more heart than brain, Dewey leads a class of sheltered prep-school fifth-graders to the Battle of the Bands by teaching them the only thing he knows -- hard rock and spirited irreverence.

While references to "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" and "The Bad News Bears" came up occasionally as the project took shape, Linklater says he aimed to work in a "parallel universe" to the kids comedy genre. He decided to take the outrageous situation and making it seem as real as possible, as in the classic Hollywood comedies of Preston Sturges and Ernst Lubitsch. "Even though it's all one huge conceit, you treat the conceit as if it's real. Play it straight."

Linklater insisted that "everything in this movie feel real," including a rock-based score, recalls Craig Wedren, who composed the score. "Otherwise people weren't going to buy the undeniable spirit of rock 'n' roll. The joy of the chemistry between Jack and the kids would be lost if it didn't ring true."

Without the rude language that is his comic stock in trade, Black says he had to work harder for laughs in this film. "Cuss words are funny," he says. "When you're robbed of them, you have to dig a little deeper for some genuine funnies."

Concern that Black's humor might not work in a PG-13 world has given way to a positive buzz about the film's cross-generational charms, stemming from the likable kids and Black's infectious passion for rock. Off-screen, he sings, writes and plays guitar for his own band, Tenacious D.

"One of Jack's strengths is that he's a top-notch singer," Linklater says. "His rock is very comedic, but very sophisticated actually. It takes in a lot of the history of rock."

Mini rock stars: a talent search

To keep it real, Linklater wanted to find kids who were also musicians. "I didn't want to fake it," he says. "I wanted kids who could really play first, and act second."

To find the film's uniformed preppies who are studying classical music when Black takes over, filmmakers looked outside Hollywood and found fresh-faced and talented young musicians from sources such as an NPR program featuring young classical musicians and DayJams, a nationwide rock 'n' roll camp for kids.

Casting calls nationwide drew thousands. Those who made the final cut would need to quickly pick up pieces like AC/DC's "It's a Long Way to the Top," all the while absorbing Black's lessons on "sticking it to the Man" (in this case, the school principal played by Joan Cusack.)

That would require a "school of rock" -- an immersion in rock and Jack Black-style rock mania much like the one they experience in the film. Their training period lasted 10 weeks.

Some of the kids already knew Black from his previous films (including "High Fidelity," "Shallow Hal" and "Orange County"), but even after weeks of rehearsals they were still awe-struck. In the film, audiences will see their real shock and delight at Black's uninhibited, unpredictable moves.

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