The death of rock 'n' roll?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Oct. 16 2003 4:51 PM

Swan Song

What might School of Rock tell us about the state of rock 'n' roll?

Still from School of Rock
School of Rock: Rock, emasculated

How much can rock 'n' roll movies tell us about the state of rock itself? Take the 1979 Ramones' classic, Rock'n' Roll High School, and compare it to the current Jack Black juggernaut, School of Rock. A quarter-century ago the Ramones told us the Man "tried to stop their music, but the kids got wrecked and rocked the school!" Today, Black goes out of his way to explain that rock isn't about "scoring chicks" or "getting wasted," and the theme song culminates in a cry of " get me to school on time!" Well, as Joey Ramone quipped 25 years ago, "things sure have changed since we got kicked out of high school."

Traditionally, confluences of rock and film stock tended to fall into one of two categories: In twentysomething films like High Fidelity, the heroes held rock to be so real, and so very vital, that life itself seemed pale in comparison. Such films told us, time and again, that aesthetic judgments, rather than actions, defined our characters. In teen epics like Footloose, rock 'n' roll was elevated to the status of an emerging and embattled value system. The kids in these films felt about music the way that early Christians felt about Christ. Town elders stood in for Roman centurions, and the music served double-duty as cri de coeur and secret language. Bob Dylan summed both forms up nearly 40 years ago: "The word is not international phenomenon," he said. "The word is parental nightmare."

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But School of Rock was written with a new breed of adults in mind—and their driving fear isn't that the youth of tomorrow will fall prey to what Frank Sinatra once described as "the martial marching music of every side-burned delinquent." It's that the kids might never get their rocks off in the first place. When Black first meets his school kids, who are young enough to be Dylan's grandkids, Led Zeppelin takes a backseat to Latin, and rock 'n' roll is as sexy and redemptive, in their eyes, as a square dance at a retirement home. Which might explain why Stephen Holden's New York Times review mentioned in passing that hip-hop has usurped rock's place in the public imagination; if he's right, it makes sense that the substitute teacher played by Jack Black should have to introduce his charges to the pleasures of rocking out rather than the other way around. It also makes sense that, like the subtext in your favorite Saturday morning cartoon, School of Rock's music serves mainly to keep the grown-ups engaged.

In this, as in other things, the film succeeds brilliantly. Director Richard Linklater dates his artistic awakening to a 1984 Dead Kennedys show. His first, DIY film, Slacker, did as much as any other to define the contemporary indie aesthetic. And, for all its references to Zeppelin, Sabbath, and AC/DC, his latest has impeccable indie credentials: The cast was coached by Jim O'Rourke, the avant-rocker who produced Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and now plays with Sonic Youth. The title track was co-written with New York garage-rockers the Mooney Suzuki. Craig Wedren, who used to sing with the Washington, D.C., art-punk band Shudder To Think, ghostwrote the faux-Creed anthem you hear in the film's Battle of the Bands sequence. And if Jack Black's character leans heavily toward metal and riff-rock, the film itself makes less-obvious choices—songs by bands like the Velvet Underground and Jonathan Richman's Modern Lovers keep seeping through cracks in the dialogue.

Given such a pedigree, it's odd that School of Rock should invert High Fidelity's highbrow aesthetic entirely and—aside from a quick, cursory dis of Christina Aguilera, Puff Daddy, and MTV—strive to avoid value judgments altogether. Still that's what Linklater's team seems to be doing through much of the film. Consider the sequences in which Black's kids rock out to Led Zeppelin's " Immigrant Song" and the Ramones' "My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)." Setting Zeppelin's Wagnerian pretensions against a punk song about Ronald Reagan's trip to a certain German cemetery might, in fact, be the point, but the Ramones themselves would have objected—for them, Jimmy Page's taste wasn't much of an improvement over Reagan's. ("We decided to start our own group because we were bored with everything we heard," Joey Ramone explained once. "Everything was tenth-generation Led Zeppelin … overproduced, or just junk. We missed music like it used to be.") Here, and elsewhere, School of Rock's implication isn't so much that such musical turf battles have sorted themselves out with time—it's that they've simply ceased to matter.

This isn't to say that I was unhappy to hear songs by the Ramones and the Modern Lovers in a movie that held the No. 1 box-office spot, or that I think bands like Led Zeppelin and AC/DC are worthless in comparison, but that the tensions between such bands help keep rock off life support in the first place. The music's preservation depends, in part, on their immanence. Like Slate's David Edelstein, I was charmed by School of Rock, but I left the theater thinking not of the rock films I grew up with but of more recent efforts to place broad swaths of American music in a museum: Ken Burns' Jazz or Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues also put up brave facades. And they, too, left me feeling that the sight of our elders being afraid for our music, rather than of it, was a sure sign of something amiss.

If School of Rock gives us any indication of what rock might look like in another 50 years—and of what it's beginning to look like today—it's this: Wholly absorbed into the nation's bloodstream, rock continues to be played and appreciated by certain segments of the population, works its way into the American curriculum, and loses its sense of engagement with the culture at large. This makes Linklater's film something like the cinematic equivalent of an Irish wake or a New Orleans funeral—a good enough time is had by all that the corpse itself is soon forgotten.

Alex Abramovich has been writing for Slate since 2001. In 2008, Riverhead will publish a history of rock 'n' roll he's been working on for the last four years.