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Jumping on the bandwagon

Jack Black film recalls an overlooked era of sweet, smart, and proudly stupid rock 'n' roll comedies

There's a key scene in Richard Linklater's winning new comedy, "The School of Rock," in which Jack Black, playing a classic-rock-obsessed substitute teacher, quizzes his fifth-grade charges on their musical influences. "Christina Aguilera?" pipes up one girl. "Wrong!" barks the teacher. "Puff Daddy?" offers another student. "No!" he responds, going on to invoke the name of the holiest of rawk holies: the mighty Led Zeppelin. Blank stares. "What do they teach you in this school?!," Black howls in disgust.

His shock may be shared by anyone who came of age during the pre-MTV era -- i.e., the parents of the kids sitting in the audience. The marvel of "School," though, is that it acts as a spirited corrective, bringing the generations together with high humor, gonzo guitar moves, and a solid awareness of the Ramones' place in musical history.

Ironically, "The School of Rock" is itself a throwback to an earlier and curiously innocent era of rock 'n' roll comedies that flourished during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Sweet-tempered, goofy, anarchic, and knowledgeable, they often fell through the cracks of public awareness: If you saw them at all, it was probably on Cinemax at 2 a.m., and afterward you weren't quite sure if you hadn't hallucinated the whole thing.

None of these films would have been conceivable without punk, the movement that broke rock history in half and used derision, speed, and noise to deflate pop music's overweening pomposity. Punk also made it possible to finally close the book on the '60s; since the music was now aimed full speed ahead, it was safe to view the earlier era with fond, if biting, nostalgia.

Which is to say that the 1978 movie "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" couldn't have been made two years earlier, when the Beatles, even in pieces, were still the center of the pop universe. The first feature film to be directed by Robert Zemeckis -- who went on to Hollywood glory with "Back to the Future" and "Forrest Gump" -- "Hand" is a teen comedy that glints with a rock archeologist's subtext.

It's set in New York City in February of 1964: the Fab Four have landed at JFK, are staying at the Plaza, and are readying for their historical appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Instead of showing the Beatles, though, "Hand" focuses on six New Jersey teenagers who would do anything to get into the show. Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale nail the effervescent surrealism of early Beatlemania: the way a kid's haircut could threaten the social order, or the way one's preference for John over Paul suddenly mattered more than anything else.

"Hand" has all the pratfalls and gross-out gags common to '70s teen farces -- not for nothing is uber-nerd Eddie Deezen in the cast -- but it views its impassioned kids with gentle understanding. The scene in which Nancy Allen finds herself in the Beatles' empty hotel room and caresses their belongings as if they were religious relics is both the character's and the movie's pinnacle of bliss.

"Rock 'n' Roll High School," released the following year, showed what punk could do to the old rock-movie tropes. Directed and co-written by Allan Arkush and featuring the Ramones, the film has been dismissed by some critics as a sellout -- a cynical beach-blanket retread with the new music slapped on top for the kids.

They couldn't be more wrong. "Rock 'n' Roll High School" is proudly and engagingly stoopid, and it does to teen movies what the Ramones did to pop: Pep it up, dumb it down, and make it fun again. Besides, how can you hate a movie that features ex-Warhol Factory actress Mary Woronov, as man-eating principal Miss Togar, asking the Ramones, "Does your mother know you're Ramones?"

Arkush returned two years later with "Get Crazy" (1983), the era's great lost rock comedy. Set around a benefit concert organized to save a Fillmore-like theater, "Crazy" is a benevolent and overloaded parody of everything that was going on in music just then. Rocker Lou Reed plays Auden, a superstar recluse who looks and sounds awfully like Bob Dylan and who is first seen calcified in his mansion in the exact pose Dylan took on the cover of "Bringing It All Back Home." Malcolm McDowell plays Reggie Wanker, a.k.a. Mick Jagger, muttering "Ain't I lovely?" into a backstage mirror. Hippies, punks, soul singers, and bluesmen all take their happy lumps. It's wonderfully silly and, inexplicably, unavailable on video. (Copies occasionally surface on eBay.)

Cameron Crowe also made his first foray into film during this period, adapting the screenplay of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982) from his nonfiction book. Directed by Amy Heckerling, "Ridgemont" was a teen comedy with a difference -- a seriocomic snapshot of high school life that showed just how deeply rock mattered to its characters. The film's unexpectedly humane sensibility turned out to be Crowe's, and it's a small jump from Robert Romanus channeling Cheap Trick in "Ridgemont" to John Cusack wooing Ione Skye with a Peter Gabriel song in "Say Anything" (1989) and the rose-colored classic-rock memories of "Almost Famous" (2000), the one film that carries the spirit of the old rock comedies into the modern era.

With Rob Reiner's "This Is Spinal Tap" (1984), the genre simultaneously reached its peak and its dead end. What more can you say about rock excess after this brutal and loving "mockumentary" has scorched the earth on which every heavy-metal dunderhead has dared to walk? Perhaps it's enough to acknowledge the credo by which Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) live -- and to recognize that all these films dance on the fine line between clever and stupid. With "The School of Rock," that line is gloriously walked once more.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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