Sixteen years ago, a movie about Jack Black teaching sheltered, overprotected prep school children how to rock ‘n’ roll premiered in theaters. School of Rock went on to become the highest-grossing music-themed comedy of all time—until 2015 when it was overtaken by Pitch Perfect 2. It also spawned a TV series, a Broadway musical, and multiple rumours of a potential film sequel, a project for which original screenwriter Mike White had already turned in a script for.
It sounds vaguely ludicrous on paper, especially considering how many categories School of Rock easily classifies under: musical, comedy, coming-of-age drama, offbeat underdog story, ode to rock ‘n’ roll, inspirational feel-good family film, that one movie everyone forgot was directed by Richard Linklater. But in a time where most mainstream media was still not only overwhelmingly vanilla but looked it, too, School of Rock stood out as an underrated push for inclusivity.
As Dewey Finn, Jack Black put on a fantastic performance as polite society’s definition of a loser: a washed-up wannabe rocker unable to support himself who no one wanted to associate with. Dewey’s journey of realizing that he could hold on to his passion for rock and still learn to be a mature, self-sufficient adult played out smoothly and satisfyingly; and established a brilliant parallel for the children’s collective journey of learning to balance the stuffy, prestigious prep school expectations laid upon them with their need to be children—to pursue passions and joys, to have fun, to play.
The children’s individual storylines are wonderfully balanced alongside Dewey’s personal journey. Lawrence (Robert Tsai), an Asian boy who struggles with low self-esteem, receives reassurance from Dewey that enables him to build his confidence upon the one foundation he doesn’t doubt: his proficiency on the piano. Dewey goes on to nickname him “Mister Cool” in front of the whole class, an explicit reminder for Lawrence that whatever he may think of himself, whatever other people may think of him, he is, indeed, cool. It’s not the typical “everybody is special in their own way for no real reason” spiel that we usually hear in family films. It’s an even better message: “Finding something you love makes you special. Being good at it makes you special.”
Tomika (Maryam Hassan) is a Black girl with a big voice, but her struggle with body image issues makes her too shy to even volunteer as a singer in the initial formation of the band. She tries to pull out of the band’s audition performance, but Dewey convinces her to sing by reminding her of Aretha Franklin, an iconic singer who happens to be plus-sized and relating to her problems with his own rounder frame.
What’s important about this conversation is that the script didn’t make Dewey try to convince Tomika that It Doesn’t Matter What Other People Think, like a lot of media traditionally tends to angle for when dealing with body image issues. Instead, Dewey tells Tomika that being chubby makes him “sexy.” It’s a powerful claim to make, one that runs counter to everything that mass media and advertising tells us. When Tomika asks him why he doesn’t go on a diet, his response is equally compelling. “Because I like to eat,” he declares, equal parts defensive and matter-of-fact. That’s it. No reasoning about harmful body image ideas and messaging, no big ideas about defying societal perceptions and pressures. Simply because he likes to eat. It’s humorous, and uplifting, and freeing.
Dewey’s interactions with Lawrence and Tomika are standout examples of School of Rock’s deeper layers of nuance and surprising willingness to tackle big issues that are relevant to kids of all backgrounds growing into adolescence. They’re also important pillars of representation for Asian kids, Black kids, and fat and/or chubby kids. It’s especially commendable that School of Rock included multiple children of colour in its pristine, prestigious prep school setting—a setting that could have easily been used as an excuse to portray only white, conventionally attractive children.
There’s also something to be said for the connection he forms with all of the kids. He sees not only their talents and their gifts, but their passions as well, and values them for it. He trusts them with what anyone would arguably consider to be too much for children, but they deliver on every possible level. He trusts the kids to name the band. He trusts Summer (Miranda Cosgrove) to manage the band, relying on her to get them into the Battle of the Bands. He initially puts Billy (Brian Falduto) on the security team, but when Billy requests the position of band stylist, Dewey readily gives him the task with zero arguments or questions. When the band decides to change songs last minute before their big final performance—a change he has all the kids vote on—he trusts Gordon (Zachary Infante) to improvise a whole new lighting set, a daunting task many adults probably wouldn’t even be trusted with, let alone in a high-stakes situation.
The added layer of authenticity provided by Linklater’s insistence that all the child actors play their own instruments only emphasizes and underscores the responsibilities undertaken by the kids in pursuing their newfound passions.
School of Rock’s core message is important for anyone, child or adult: strive for a life of fullness, not just achievement. Remarkably, this narrative played out on a foundation of diverse identities connecting with each other and building each other up, working together to create a sound made even richer by each person’s unique ability. It represented marginalized identities without seeking praise for it in the best way possible—show, not tell.
And, perhaps best of all, it gave us a killer titular song that still holds up to this day.
By: Melissa Lee
Edited By: Keshav Kant