As the film celebrates its 20th anniversary, we ask the urgent question: is Billy the tragic victim of a homophobic oaf.. or a defiant and unapologetically queer icon?
Jack Black has announced that the cast of School of Rock will be holding a reunion this year, in celebration of the film's 20th anniversary. This will likely involve some “jamming”, Black told Entertainment Tonight, while promising to upload videos of the event. This is as good a time as any to reflect on the film, and its complex legacy.
While I am blinded by nostalgia, I think it’s reasonable to say that School of Rock is a great film. For the uninitiated, it follows Dewey (Jack Black), a broke, washed-up musician who scams his way into a temporary teaching job at a fancy private school by posing as his flatmate. After realising that his new pupils are musically talented, he embarks on an elaborate plot to mould them into a rock band – and you better believe that hi-jinks ensue. It was a childhood favourite of mine, and I’ve returned to it sporadically over the years, a comfort watch saved for the most desperate of hangovers. It still holds up really well, even though the older I get, the more I think that Dewey does actually deserve to be arrested and sent to prison – safeguarding is important, no matter how much you want to win a local ‘Battle of the Bands’ competition.
While it’s funny and at times silly, School of Rock is achingly earnest about the power of music, featuring a number of scenes that give me goosebumps just thinking about them (when the shy, quiet Tomika blasts out a stunning rendition of “Chain of Fools” by Aretha Franklin… Academy Award!) While Dewey is a liar and a fraud, it turns out he is a good teacher. By the film’s end, every student in the class discovers something special about themselves, and in doing so overcomes a challenge they’re facing. Zak, the prodigious guitar player, is empowered to stand up to his cold and overbearing father; Tomika conquers her anxieties about her weight; teacher’s pet Summer learns to loosen up and bonds with her classmates as a result; nerdy, awkward keyboardist Lawrence realises that he can be as “cool” as anyone. This is true, to a lesser extent, of the minor characters: from Gordon to Marta, each of them has a chance to shine. Each of them, that is… except the gay kid.
The flamboyant, effeminate Billy (played by Brian Falduto) is the only student character in the film who is denied an empowering narrative arc. While Billy is not openly queer, being an 11-year-old boy, it’s pretty obvious: he’s ‘pre-gay’, as Larry David might say. Throughout the film, whatever interest he has in queer culture, and whatever queer sensibility he exhibits, is met with derision: at one point, Dewey scoffs in disbelief when Billy reveals that his favourite artist is Liza Minelli, as though this is inherently less credible than being into, like, Def Leppard. Even where it’s tongue-in-cheek, School of Rock noticeably feels like the product of a time before poptimism became dominant (if it was written today, a Dewey type might be waxing lyrical about the songwriting on Evermore) and this brings with it a certain disdain towards the feminine.
Just about everyone else has a unique talent or interest which is nurtured by Dewey. But while Billy, who is interested in fashion, is designated the band’s stylist, his one and only contribution to the project is rejected. When he presents his costume design – a “glitter rock, glam and fabulous” affair featuring thigh-high boots and billowing blouses, Dewey reacts with horror – presumably because it’s a little too fruity. Considering that “glam” is just as much a part of the rock music canon as any other genre, Billy can hardly be accused of misunderstanding the assignment – if anything, he’s trying to meet Dewey halfway! His only crime is to create a look that is too flamboyant, too colourful, too queer. It’s true that he does come up with the concept of the band performing in their school uniforms, but this is a sarcastic suggestion and he immediately tries to row it back – only to have his expertise dismissed by a man who, as he acidly remarks, cannot even dress. When the band eventually triumphs (winning the Battle of the Bands symbolically, if not literally), Billy has essentially been afforded no role to play, beyond being a seamstress-for-hire executing someone else’s creative vision.
So, how do we solve a problem like Billy? Is School of Rock to be condemned for its rampant queerphobia? On balance, I would say no. Faltudo himself has written movingly about how becoming known as ‘the gay kid from School of Rock’ caused him problems with bullying and internalised homophobia: as he wrote in The Advocate, “Because of my role in the film (as well as the way I carried myself, lesbi-honest), I was labeled gay. I didn't know why my tendencies were considered wrong, but I just knew that I was meant to change.” But he speaks with no bitterness about School of Rock itself, and says that he still, to this day, receives letters from gay men who felt a connection with the character. This isn’t surprising. For a start, Billy is hilarious – we are not laughing at him when he delivers his withering putdown, “you’re tacky and I hate you”. It’s a great comedic performance from such a young actor. And while Billy comes around a little towards the end, there is a dignity in his steadfast contempt for the heterosexual culture which Dewey is trying to shove down his throat: not gay as in happy, but queer as in ‘fuck you, don’t tell me I can’t listen to Liza Minelli.”
Billy is catty, sassy and kind of abrasive, but is that really so bad? Plenty of gay people are, and surely deserve representation too. If the queer community can reclaim Scar from The Lion King, Lydia Tár, and William Friedkin’s Cruising, then surely we can embrace this caustic tween fashionista. On one hand, School of Rock feels like a relic of a more casually homophobic time (not least because Billy is nicknamed ‘Fancy Pants’), but on the other, people today are clamouring for more “unlikeable” queer characters, more ambiguous forms of representation. As Francis Lee, the director of God’s Own Country, tweeted last week, “make your gay characters complex. Problematic. Nasty fuckers who do bad things. Unapologetic. Evil. Manipulative.” Sounds familiar…? Viewed in that light, maybe there’s something quietly radical in School of Rock’s refusal to give Billy a saccharine redemption arc: maybe it shows that queer folks don’t need to be redeemed after all.