Jack Black has never minded being the fat guy. As the titular Mexican wrestler in Nacho Libre, Black used his expansive, spandaxed body as a recurring sight gag. In Tropic Thunder, that self-referential showbiz satire, he played a comedian-actor nicknamed Fats best known for a movie called The Fatties. Flab is such a fundamental part of Black’s screen image that he’s fat even when he’s invisible, as when he’s voicing the bumbling bear in Kung Fu Panda.
Plenty of actors are fat, young males increasingly so. But Black distinguishes his fat by making it the unlikely host of manic, frenzied, uncontainable energy, even in a quieter film like Bernie – and, just as importantly, he leaves behind the desperate self-loathing that, say, Chris Farley inevitably brought to his performances. Black can be a languid screen presence, but he’s more often than not a restless one, impatiently waiting for an opportunity to burst into a full-body air-guitar solo or a mini-dance sequence full of athletic jumps, strangely artful arm flails, and muscular tongue thrusts.
In The School Of Rock (2003), the last big showcase for his particular charm and talents, Black squares the circle of his hyperactive fat by turning it into a rock-and-roll badge of honor. By divorcing his fleshy body from the usual connotations of laziness and linking it instead with the various signifiers of “cool” that rock has adopted since Chuck Berry picked up his first guitar – the working class, blackness, physical pleasure and outsider status – he turns the movie, a plea for music education, into a secret fat manifesto.
As Dewey Finn, Black channels the judgmental music nerd he played in High Fidelity and his own experience as the lead singer of the comedy band Tenacious D. From the very first scene, his zeppelin-, not Zeppelin-esque build is a part of the story. His stocky frame – and its bulky contrast to his bandmates’ – is accentuated by a weird cowboy costume. He takes his shirt off, revealing his fleshy torso, and leaps into a none-too-adoring crowd that lets him belly-flop on the floor. (Even if they were into the band, who’d want to carry that great big mass above their heads?) To add insult to injury, Dewey’s band replaces him in short order with an androgynous but chiseled guitarist – the kind of leather-vested Adonis of Rock Dewey thinks he is and looks nothing like. And yet the fact that all the members of his former band look like stringy-haired clones in black t-shirts and skinny jeans makes Dewey look like the real rebel, if an initially clueless one.
The film’s first half is happy to “confirm” all the negative stereotypes about overweight people. Dewey rightly gets called out as a “lazy freeloader.” His first words to his charges at Horace Green Prep are “Who's got food in here?” and, offered a half-eaten turkey sub, he gobbles it up on the spot. His baggy khakis, brown corduroy pants, and polyester shirts don’t just show how out of place he is at the tony academy, but highlight his portly schlubbiness. But Dewey’s gradual transformation into a better, more self-aware version of himself is wholly divorced from his fat, which remains on his person, as permanent as his love of Black Sabbath. Fat can’t be a sign of sloth and self-indulgence if it remains when those characteristics disappear. More importantly, Dewey’s successful performance at the Battle of the Bands, where he careens and showboats all over the stage, proves that rock need not be attached to a scrawny, screeching rock-monkey aesthetic but can come in any size.
Interestingly, Dewey’s not immune from fat prejudice himself. When he first encounters the full-throated Tomika (Maryam Hassan), a chubby African-American girl who towers over her classmates, he asks insensitively, “You want to be security?” Later, behind the curtains at the Battle of the Bands, she confesses her fear that “they’re going to laugh at me because I’m fat.” Dewey helps her overcome her stage fright – a fear that never seems to have crossed his mind – by changing what it means to be fat. “I like to eat. Is that such a crime?” he asks rhetorically, implying anyone can be overweight, just like any of his kids could find a way to contribute to the School of Rock band. And fat doesn’t matter in the context of musical talent anyway. “Once I get up on stage, start doing my thing, people worship me! Because I’m sexy! And chubby,” he continues. “Everybody wants to party with Aretha! You’re a rock star now. People are gonna dig you.” Obvious but unsaid is the fact that Tomika – and the young actress who plays her – is the best singer among the preppy pips because of her size. Big voices require big lungs, and it’s only her body that’s capacious enough to fit those magnificent pipes.
The School Of Rock isn’t a point-by-point breakdown of every fat prejudice. Despite Dewey’s assertions of self-professed sexiness on the stage, he never seals the deal with the uptight but Stevie Nicks-worshipping Principal Mullins (Joan Cusack). Still, Black parading his unruly, pleasure-acquired fat on stage like a peacock with his outspread tail doesn’t feel just refreshing, but revolutionary. Unlike male spare-tired comedic actors like Seth Rogen and Jason Segel who always seem to have an apology on the ready for their bodies, Black in School Of Rock is a progenitor for today’s female plus-sized comedians like Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson, charismatically bellicose performers who aren’t afraid to use their bodies as a tool of confrontation. They’re here, they like beer, get over it.
This article originally appeared in "Back to School," the September issue of Birth.Movies.Death. You can pick up a physical copy of the magazine at your local Alamo Drafthouse, or you can read it on the web here. See School of Rock at the Alamo this month.