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'School of Rock' duo learn music can unify people

Musical TheaterMoviesArtRock and Roll (genre)Mike White

Jack Black and Mike White started their rock 'n' roll journeys from two very different places.

In fact, Black and White's musical roots are about as opposite as their surnames suggest.

The former, a dough-faced star known for his Farley-esque exuberance, impish persona and biting wit, spent his formative years sporting Sabbath T-shirts and kneeling to the dark lords of heavy metal.

The latter, a talented, mild-mannered screenwriter, grew up the milquetoast son of a Christian minister and trudged his way through a strict preparatory education on a steady -- albeit forced -- musical diet of white gospel and the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack.

If they hadn't lived next door to each other for years, the unlikely duo might not have crossed paths.

But as the rock gods would have it, in the late '90s, the struggling twentysomethings wound up as neighbors.

The pair quickly discovered that they were both drawn to the so-called devil's music -- Black because he was hungry for the rock idolatry that's reserved for crushing ax slingers, and White because he enjoyed being close to the pagan mayhem.

"I was like, 'I wanna rock! I wanna act; I wanna be in the arts,' " said Black, who, when he met White, was still searching for breakthrough roles and playing in the folk-metal/comedy duo Tenacious D.

White, on the other hand, had less riotous ways of displaying his proclivity for all things rock.

"I'm a closet rebel, just like I was in high school," he said.

The self-described "dork-on-a-fork" couldn't pull off a clutch guitar solo if he tried. But the "born scribbler" knew how to write about a guy who could.

In the new film School of Rock, the friends of circumstance pool their talents on and off screen to create a funny yet poignant story of the unifying power of rock 'n' roll.

White's tale of a loser turned hero opens tomorrow with Black starring as down-on-his-luck Dewey Finn, a hard-rockin' wannabe musician with a bad case of arrested development. In need of rent money, a desperate Finn poses as his substitute teacher roommate, Ned Schneebly (played by White), and is given a job as fill-in instructor for a class of fifth-grade prep-schoolers.

After throwing out the traditional curriculum, the impostor abuses his teacher status and uses the homeroom time to shake off hangovers while the kids run loose. But when Finn overhears his charges' orchestra rehearsal one day, he's electrified by their musical promise and begins to teach them a class he calls "rock band."

The strait-laced kids get a weeks-long lesson in rock, including a chalkboard diagrammed guide through the history of the genre and practical instruction in classic rocker moves (think windmills a la Pete Townshend and Tommy Lee stick twirls).

And in the process, Finn discovers both his knack for teaching and a circuitous route to a coveted spot in the local battle of the bands.

The story, White says, was written with his longtime friend in mind.

"I sort of feel bonded to him. [The script] was a valentine to my respect for him," he said.

So much, in fact, that the 33-year-old writer said the film could be made only if Black would assume the lead character.

"It was specifically for him. It was him or nothing," White said.

Black was happy to take on White's homage and shines in the personalized role.

"I was really just stoked when Mike White called me and said, 'Hey, I've got an idea to write a movie around you ... for you,' " said Black, calling from a Los Angeles hotel room. "He tailored it specifically to all of my strengths. That was just a super bonus."

It may have been custom-made for the comically adept star, but the rocker role demanded more than what the noodling-challenged actor could deliver, Black said.

"The difference between me and Dewey is he's a better guitar player than me. You'll notice when I'm doing all the shredding [that] my hands really move very fast. It's because I'm not that good," Black said, laughing.

As Finn, the pudgy actor not only tears it up on guitar, he contorts into passionate -- and hilarious -- rock poses while performing solos throughout the film.

And despite Black's modest claims, his musical abilities do shine through all that mock-shreddery. He displays vocal talent and power-chord prowess in a number of over-the-top classroom jams, many of which were written in partnership with White.

With "the music stuff, I definitely had a lot to say, especially [about] anything that I had to sing or play. That's my kitchen," Black said.

But playing the role of Finn was more than just a chance to perform his own licks on-screen. It also gave Black an opportunity to honor his rock 'n' roll influences.

In one scene, his character singles out rock's most influential acts when he hands over a variety of his CDs to his proteges, instructing them to listen to certain tracks as homework. The celluloid moment was crucial, Black said, because it would highlight a select number of bands from a large pool of the worthy.

He and director Richard Linklater differed over which bands should be included in the court of classics.

Linklater favored punk-influenced bands and British rock, while Black championed metal and American rock, Black said.

"Rick would say, 'Yeah, man; give her Blondie.' And I was like 'Dude, maybe you should give her Journe-e-e-y,' " said Black.

Despite differing opinions over whom to crown as rock royalty, Black said that the film was a joy to make. And he acknowledged that the School of Rock production sessions were educational as well as fun.

Black's work on the film, he said, taught him a very important lesson.

"There's one thing I learned: You're never too young to rock."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Musical TheaterMoviesArtRock and Roll (genre)Mike White
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