John Cassavetes may be considered the daddy of US independent cinema, but the '80s saw a rag-tag gaggle of kids accept his inheritance. Between them, the likes of Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, the Coens, Jim Jarmusch and John Sayles changed cinema - or at least offered an alternative to Simpson and Bruckheimer. But time passes, people mellow and the rabblerousers become the establishment.
Interesting, then, that indie icon Richard Linklater - the guy who became the cinematic voice of Gen X with Slacker - has here directed a mainstream smash. Especially seeing as it arrives just months after the Coens released Intolerable Cruelty, their most conventional movie to date, and a year after Spike Lee also inched towards the establishment with 25th Hour. Yet those claiming Linklater has sold out are missing the point: School may be formulaic, calculated and as predictable as an Iron Maiden album, but there's no doubting Linklater's unbridled passion for his subject matter.
Not supply teaching, stupid. Rock. Big, fat, sweaty, shrieky, squealin' rock. And none of this oh-so-ironic Darkness nonsense, either. We're talking The Doors, Hendrix, AC/DC... All those bands Linklater grew up worshipping and promptly put on the soundtrack of his sophomore feature, Dazed And Confused. Plus the one he tried to gain rights to but couldn't, Led Zeppelin this time granting him use of `Immigrant Song'. (But only after Jack Black begged them to acquiesce.) Of course, Black is also a disciple of "the god of rock", his folk-rock band Tenacious D having released an album, his fever-pitch turn in High Fidelity having stolen the film. And it's Black, even more than Linklater, who plugs School into the mains. Playing Dewey Finn, a drop-out loser who refuses to settle for a nine-to-five job ("I serve society by rocking!"), he masquerades as a supply teacher to pay the rent. At first Dewey merely sits out the days, telling his $15,000-a-year pupils to take one long recess. Then he has a brain-burp: he'll school them in the ways of rock, training them up 'til they're ready to back him in the Battle Of The Bands contest in six weeks' time!
It's a set-up that can't help but yield comedy gold, Black assigning every kid an instrument or position (manager, roadie, groupie...) and handing out CDs as homework. He delivers inspired rants against The Man. He traces bands' influences and legacies with the aid of flow charts. And he shows lead guitarist Zack (Joey Gaydos) how to adopt a "power stance". In short, Dewey teaches the entire history of rock'n'roll in six short weeks, fulfilling his promise that his classes will "test your mind and your head... And your brain too". Band practice, meanwhile, is arranged by soundproofing the classroom and rigging up an elaborate security system to keep tags on the school's priggish principle (Joan Cusack, getting admirable change from a stereotype).
Packed with informed references and infused with the same rebellious spirit as rock-sampling '50s teen flicks like Blackboard Jungle and High School Confidential, Linklater's movie will have parents - and even grandparents - taking their places next to the pimple brigade, T-shirts of The Who interspersed with those of The White Stripes. After all, this is a movie that preaches dissent - but safe, quaint and amiably anachronistic dissent, a brand of defiance that's now more amusing than worrying. Linklater and writer/actor Mike White (Chuck&Buck, The Good Girl) realise this, poking fun at Dewey's saddo side even as they salute it. And Black knows it too, diving into the mosh pit only to land smack on his phizzog when the onlookers step to one side.
The movie's messages are also old ones, traditional and threadbare: the uptight kids and starchy headmistress discover life can be more fun if you let your hair down (or spray it into spikes); the strict parents learn they should lay off the discipline and trust their sprogs; and Dewey finds he can open his heart to others without pandering to The Man.
It would be yawnsome if it wasn't so much fun. Centred on a whirlwind performance by Black, who summons John Belushi levels of energy, School sets out to do one thing and one thing only. To. Make. You. Laugh. And you know what? There's sod all wrong with that. Just ask the audience on the way out. You can bet your Fender Strat they won't be harping on about Linklater sacrificing his signature visual style...