High fidelity: Jack Black stays true to his 'School'

September 28, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

Jack Black was tired and uncharacteristically sedate as he plopped down on a couch at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, but his lack of energy was understandable.

Black had just spent several hours in the sun at Wrigley Field, where he sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch during a whirlwind visit to Chicago to promote his new film, "School of Rock" (which opens Friday). But as soon as the talk turned to music, he came to life.

A few weeks earlier at Wrigley Field, Ozzy Osbourne had performed a memorable rendition of the same tune, and the actor and part-time musician Black was honored to be following in his idol's footsteps. "I'm not worthy!" he said jokingly.

In his new film, Black portrays a substitute teacher, Dewey Finn, who forms a band with a group of 10-year-old students at an elite private school. In real life, Black was a teen only a few years older than the kids in the movie when he discovered rock himself via Ozzy, he explained. Later on, the Santa Monica, Calif., native became a dedicated fan of indie-rockers such as Sonic Youth, the Minutemen and the Meat Puppets. And his mind was well and truly blown when Nirvana ignited the alternative-rock revolution circa 1991.

The kids are all right in their movie debut

After Jack Black's endearing and typically high-octane performance, what makes "School of Rock" such a warm and winning film is the talent of the prepubescent musicians who form substitute teacher Dewey Finn's band.

In casting the students, director Richard Linklater, who's known for the gritty, rock 'n' roll feel of "Slacker" and "Dazed and Confused," opted to look for bona fide musicians rather than young actors who'd pretend to play their instruments. He found two of his prepubescent rockers, drummer Freddy (Kevin Clark) and bassist Katie (Rebecca Brown) in Chicago, as well as a real-life "rock teacher," producer Jim O'Rourke, to help the movie band sound like an actual group.

Clark, 14, a freshman at a suburban high school, turned up for one of several open auditions held in 10 cities in the United States and Canada. He's been playing drums since age 3 -- his childhood nickname was "Bam-Bam" -- and he currently studies with the well-known teacher and Modern Drummer magazine columnist Ed Breckenridge.

"It's an interesting story, because the day I auditioned, the guy who followed me was Joey Gaydos," Clark said. Gaydos, 12, had come to Chicago from his Belleville, Mich., home. An accomplished guitarist, he impressed casting directors enough that they called Clark back in and then filmed the two doing a spontaneous jam. Both boys were eventually cast in the film.

Brown, now 11, is a sixth-grader at a Chicago private school. She came to the attention of the film's producers via "From the Top," a National Public Radio program that features young classical musicians.

A student of classical guitar since age 4, Brown was a bit insulted to be cast as a bassist. "They wanted a boy" to play the guitarist, she sniped. Now she's a fan of the instrument and she's considering forming an all-female rock band.

Neither of the young Chicago musicians had done any acting beyond school shows, but playing music came naturally to them -- in front of the cameras or during down time on the set, when they'd sometimes jam with the film's star.

"We'd be making all of this noise and the assistant director would come over and say, 'OK, kids, this is setup time. Rock time is later.' They wouldn't yell at Jack, of course -- he was always perfect -- but they'd be like, 'Hey, Jack, can you put down the guitar? We need to talk to you about something.' "

Both student actors said they sometimes had a hard time keeping a straight face while performing with Black. "The scene where he kicks over the desk wasn't planned at all," Clark said. "I was laughing so hard that I thought I screwed up the take, but it ended up working really well."

For schooling the band in "School of Rock," O'Rourke, a veteran producer, solo artist and now a member of Sonic Youth, was hired for 10 weeks to conduct a sort of intensive "rock 'n' roll seminar."

"I needed to find out what they were used to playing, what style they liked to play in, and what their strengths and weaknesses were," he notes in the film's press materials. "After I gathered that information, it was my job to make it all blend."

But the young musicians protest that they didn't really need much help. "The only thing I learned was this weird face that you see me making in the montage" at the end, Brown said. "Jack taught me that because he said, 'Bassists never smile!' "

As for the music, in addition to a smattering of classic rock, the film boasts a kicking title track penned by New York garage band the Mooney Suzuki.

"And if you want to be the teacher's pet/Baby, you just better forget it," the tune goes. "Rock got no reason/Rock got no rhyme/You better get me to school on time."

Words to live by, regardless of whether you're still in school or if you graduated decades ago.

Already an icon to music fans thanks to his portrayal of the frenetic record-store clerk in "High Fidelity" and his satirical "acoustic metal" duo, Tenacious D, Black hopes that "School of Rock" will inspire aspiring young rockers the way that his favorite musicians inspired him, as well as entertaining them on the level of some of his favorite kids' films.

We talked about these goals and the process of making the film during a rambling hourlong interview. Here are highlights of that chat:


Q. So I heard that you just rocked Wrigley as it has never been rocked before.

A. That's what I set out to do! But as I started singing the first couple of bars, I realized that it's a difficult song to rock.


Q. Well, Ozzy certainly had a difficult time with it a few weeks ago.

A. I know! But in the end, that was probably the most entertaining version of that song in years, because they keep on replaying it.


Q. Let's talk about "School of Rock." I have to admit, I went into the screening with some cynicism: "Why is Jack Black making a kid's movie?" But I love this film! It brought a tear to my jaded eye, seeing these youngsters rock out and "stick it to the Man."

A. It's kind of a drag that "kid's movie" automatically equals "crap" these days. It's because people are extra-careful around kids now, and they talk down to kids. But I loved the old movies like "The Bad News Bears" or "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." There's a stigma with kids' movies, but I was excited by the challenge to actually make one that would be funny.


Q. How did the project come your way?

A. [Screenwriter] Mike White called me, and we were friends already. [The two used to be neighbors.] He wrote "Orange County," which I had a little part in, and I had a great time on that film. He called me and said, "Hey, I'm thinking about a movie for you where you'd be a substitute teacher and a frustrated rocker -- a failed musician kind of searching for your niche in the world of rock -- and you end up teaching these kids your magical music."

He was loosely basing it on the Langley School Project, that cult CD of a teacher in the '70s teaching grade schoolers these classic rock greats. I thought that was an amazing idea.

There are traps when you're making a kid's movie -- you don't want to fall into the cornball mode, like you say. But I knew that wasn't going to happen with him; he writes things that are darker, with these twisted characters who are really interesting.

Q. You also had the advantage of all of the kids being great.

A. Yeah, and that's also due in part to Richard Linklater's directing style.


Q. Were you a fan of his?

A. A huge fan -- I loved "Dazed and Confused." I put "Dazed and Confused" up there with the great high school movies of all time, like "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." It's up there at the top of Mount Awesome.


Q. Led Zeppelin is notoriously stingy about granting film rights to its music -- Linklater couldn't get the song "Dazed and Confused" for his movie. But I heard that you made a personal appeal to get the rights to "The Immigrant Song."

A. I don't know if it's that they've loosened up a little bit, or if it was because of my impassioned videotaped plea. It was Rick [Linklater]'s idea. He was like, "Man, you've got to get this song." We recorded that scene with the Zeppelin song and an Aerosmith song and something else, but the Zeppelin was the only one that really infused the scene with that high-voltage rock energy that we wanted. It's kind of like the high point of the movie, where the kids have this kick-ass victory to be entered into the battle of the bands.

Linklater said, "Let's film you in front of 1,000 extras, and you just make your case for why Zeppelin should give us the song." I just sort of improvised a little crowd participation/grovel session with the crowd on the set that day, and by God, it worked! We sent it along with some clips from the film, and they allowed us to pay them hundreds of thousands of dollars for the song.


Q. It's nice to have those kinds of Hollywood resources! This is Linklater's first mainstream film, isn't it?

A. It really is. On the one hand, it gives him the chance to do 10 more low-budget films off the money he'll make on this one. But I think he also wanted to prove himself, to say, "Hey, man, it's not so hard to make a hit. Check out my rocket sauce! I can play with the big boys, I just choose to do it my way."

He was having a good time, though. We all had a lot of fun making this one. I never felt like he was begrudging making this movie. The thing is, he's always over there in the super-indie movies, and I'm always over here in the super-commercial movies, and we were both kind of coming to the middle with this. For me, working with Rick Linklater and Mike White is like making an art film, even though this is obviously a crowd pleaser.


Q. The one thing that I thought required a suspension of belief is the fact that kids who are 10 today are much more likely to pick up a sampler or a synth and start rapping instead of rocking out. Were any of these kids rock fans going in?

A. A couple of them were. [Drummer] Kevin Clark was deep into Metallica already, and Joey Gaydos, the lead guitarist, has kind of an encyclopedic knowledge of rock. The rest of them had to be schooled a little bit.


Q. So in a way, the role you were playing was pretty accurate.

A. In a way, though I picked up a few things from them about how to play my instrument! I communicated more rock intensity -- that was my strong suit. I didn't try to force my music on them; kids don't like that.


Q. Had any of them heard Tenacious D's music?

A. A couple of them. It's for adults -- the language -- but the humor is pretty immature, so they definitely enjoyed that. That's kind of why I wanted to do a movie or a TV show with kids, because so many kids were coming up to me asking for autographs that I knew I had that appeal, and I knew that I'm kind of a big kid. My energy -- I'm kind of stuck in adolescence, if you will. I also really liked "PeeWee's Playhouse" -- it was my favorite show on television when I was growing up. I wanted to do something like that, for kids, but with an edge.


Q. What's up with Tenacious D?

A. We wrote a movie called "Tenacious D in the Thick of Destiny," and we'll hopefully shoot that next year and release it by the end of the year.


Q. Do you worry about being typecast as "the rock guy"?

A. Not really. I feel like as long as I'm successful at it, then there will be opportunities down the road to work with different material if I want to. But this is what I want to do -- this is my comfort zone, and I haven't gotten tired of it yet.

A lot of actors put a lot of emphasis on stretching and getting away from themselves as far as possible in order to impress you with how far away their character is from their actual being. I like to get closer and closer to the real me.

Q. That sounds like the Jack Nicholson approach.

A. Yeah. Or Bill Murray or Al Pacino. I'm not going to compare myself to them, but the thing that I love so much about them is that they're the great scenery chewers of our time. And I love a great scenery chew.


Q. Back to the question of these kids and rocking -- do you think that the music can matter as much to kids today as it did to you when you were their age?

A. Well, it dies out and it goes away for a while, then it bubbles up like a volcano somewhere else. I don't think it's necessarily like, "You've got to carry the torch of Led Zeppelin -- that's the only true rock!"

Right now, in a garage somewhere out there, the next Kurt Cobain is doing his thing. That's sort of what this movie is about.