The School of Rock vs. The Fighting Temptations

SDG Original source: National Catholic Register

I can’t quite recommend The School of Rock, the new Jack Black music-themed hit comedy about a struggling rocker who poses as a substitute teacher at an elite prep school, grooming his students to play in a big-money battle of the bands contest. At its best a cheerfully anarchic celebration of creative energy and individuality, School of Rock is almost entertaining enough and harmless enough for a pass, despite ultimately making no moral sense.

The hero’s nearly religious reverence for rock’s angry posturing and anti-authoritarianism — reverence culminating in a pre-concert prayer to the "God of rock" — isn’t quite condoned, but isn’t put in any larger context either. Rock culture’s darker side is whitewashed (it’s not about drugs, kids, and groupies are really just band cheerleaders!), and subjects other than music (and even music other than rock) get short shrift. Then there’s the swishing, lisping fifth-grade "band stylist" bringing "Queer Eye" camp to the grade-school setting.

More interesting than the film, perhaps, are the comparisons and contrasts to another current music-themed hit comedy, one being marketed to churchgoing audiences: The Fighting Temptations, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. (Note: Spoilers ahead.) The comparisons are striking:

  • In both The School of Rock and The Fighting Temptations, the protagonist is a charlatan musical director — a man who, having lost his main gig in life, finds an unexpected opportunity for financial gain by pretending to have credentials he doesn’t have, and who devotes himself to trying to cobble together an unlikely musical act from inauspicious beginnings and lead it to competition glory.
  • Both films pit the hero against a suspicious, uptight woman in a position of authority who is a stickler for rules and is intimidating to others. In The School of Rock, this is the school principal played by Joan Cusack; in The Fighting Temptations, it’s the church treasurer played by LaTanya Richardson. (School of Rock also has a secondary uptight female character who is not an authority figure per se, namely, the girlfriend of the hero’s roomate.)
  • In both films the protagonist is exposed as a fraud, and departs in disgrace. Instead of real-world consequences for his criminal acts, though, both films find absurdly contrived ways of glossing over the whole subject.
  • Finally, despite his having been exposed and disgraced, the hero’s bond with the musicians ultimately wins out, and in the third act they are triumphantly reunited, and go on to the climactic concert showdown.

Striking as the similarities are, the differences are even more interesting — especially in how they reflect upon The Fighting Temptations:

  • In The School of Rock, there’s a lot of talk about the meaning and message of rock music. The music is about something — rebellion, anger, defying The Man. In The Fighting Temptations, by contrast, no one ever talks about gospel music having any significance, meaning, or message.
  • Similarly, The School of Rock makes a big point that what really matters in the climactic competition is not winning the competition, but putting on a good show. In The Fighting Temptations, there’s never any hint of any point to playing gospel music, in the competition or otherwise, except winning the competition and winning the money.
  • The School of Rock has more compassion and understanding for its uptight stickler female authority figure than The Fighting Temptations. I repeat: The rock-rebellion movie has more compassion for the authority figure than the gospel movie.

    By the end of School of Rock, we actually have a good bit of understanding and sympathy for Joan Cusack’s character, and she shows herself capable of sympathetic behavior as well as human weakness. In The Fighting Temptations, on the other hand, the LaTanya Richardson character becomes more and more hateful, and is finally shamed and disgraced with stunningly unchristian glee by her pastor brother, and sent ignominously away.

    It’s true that School’s other female antagonist, the roomate’s girlfriend, is dealt with less sympathetically than the school principal, though not nearly as unsympathetically as the LaTanya Richardson character in Temptations. Yet her basic position is far from unreasonable, and she gets no more comeuppance than an abruptly closed door.

  • In The School of Rock, someone actually says a prayer to God before a concert asking him to bless the music. Granted, the deity is addressed as "God of rock," and the net effect is more making rock music a religion than putting rock music in any larger theological context. Still, it’s interesting that no hint of prayer or spirituality makes an appearance in The Fighting Temptations, a movie about religious music set in a church.
Religious Themes, This vs. That



The Fighting Temptations (2003)

Here is a film so woefully misconceived, so completely devoid of even generic, safely banal Hollywood spiritual uplift, that it made me long for the spiritual depth and religious meaning of Sister Act and Bruce Almighty.