Dir: Richard Linklater. USA 2003. 100 mins

One of the best things about Richard Linklater's superb new comedy, School Of Rock, is that it doesn't take itself too seriously, as director Linklater has on occasion been wont to do. Employing the highest of high concepts - failed rock guitarist impersonates a substitute teacher and turns a bunch of overachieving, nerdy fifth-graders into a mean, lean rockin' machine - the movie embraces a conventional Hollywood genre and, by injecting it with the vibrant energy of rock music, goes it one better. It's almost as though the auteurist director (most recently of experiments as disparate as Waking Life and Tape ) and his screenwriter Mike White (who wrote the very edgy Chuck & Buck as well as the more mainstream Jennifer Aniston vehicle The Good Girl ) are simultaneously parodying the cliched underdog-wins-in-the-end story and excelling at it. But the lion's share of the kudos must go to the amazing Jack Black, who, as anarchistic rocker Dewey Finn, happily hogs the screen from beginning to end. Though comedy generally doesn't travel well, Black's brilliant use of body language and his expressive physical humour will make this a sure bet in markets around the world.

Early on in the movie, Finn's insanely total commitment to the faded heavy-metal ethos of such groups as Led Zeppelin and AC/DC gets him ejected from his band. Pressed by his roommate Ned (White) and Ned's hard-charging yuppie girlfriend Patty (Silverman) to pay his share of the rent, the desperate Finn masquerades as Ned, who works as a substitute teacher, and lands a temporary position at an exclusive prep school. There he encounters Mrs. Mullins (Cusack), a Dickensian martinet who has cowed everyone in the school, teachers and students included. Disdainfully discarding the curriculum, Finn proceeds to instruct his ten-year-old charges in such academic esoterica as The History of Rock and Roll and Rock Appreciation. Hilariously whipping them into shape for the grande finale, a local Battle of the Bands, Finn and the band end up, not surprisingly, triumphing over all adversity.

Not everyone will appreciate Black's over-the-top comic riffs, but most will be delighted. They are certainly fresh, and his shameless mugging is, for better or worse, the movie's core. Each time viewers might begin to tire of his in-your-face antics, the filmmakers wisely toss another group of characters into the mix. Cusack is fabulous as the uptight principal who lets her hair down after a few beers, revealing her inner rocker.

The script is rigorously non-PC and, when it manifests Finn's retro heavy-metal values (as for example when the class rock band, The School of Rock, is created, three of the girls are given roles as groupies) remains funny. Some will find the arch ten-year-old class queen-- who designs the band's costumes, loves Liza Minnelli, and continually berates Finn for his lack of sartorial taste-- more offensive. But Finn, and the film, show their humanity in many heart-warming moments that seem, complexly, ironic and real all at once.

Prod Co: Paramount Pictures
Prod: Scott Rudin
Exec Prods: Steve Nicolaides and Scott Aversano
DoP: Rogier Stoffers
Prod Des: Jeremy Conway
Ed: Sandra Adair
Costumes: Karen Patch
Music Supervisor: Randall Poster
Main Cast: Jack Black, Joan Cusack, Mike White, Sarah Silverman