Here's the setup: an earnest and eccentric, but perhaps commercially unviable, rocker takes it upon himself to school the next generation of wannabe musicians in the art of gettin' the Led out. Sound familiar? Director Richard Linklater's popular 2003 film, School of Rock, featured Jack Black as a wild-eyed music aficionado who manages to inspire musical greatness in a bunch of school kids. Now Rock School, a documentary from first timer Don Argott, follows Paul Green—the self proclaimed "überlord" of the Philadelphia-based Paul Green School of Rock Music (and possible inspiration for School of Rock)—through a year of classes at his after-school program for 9-to-17-year-olds.
Green's program offers private lessons on a variety of instruments and then groups the students together based on skill level for jam sessions. Headmaster Green, an accomplished guitarist in his own right, says he wouldn't want to be a rock star now. He'd rather be one in back in the '70s, and his choice of material for the students bears this out. Recitals come in the form of live shows featuring music from the likes of Led Zeppelin, Carlos Santana, and Black Sabbath. The most advanced of the groups, the All Stars, performs prog-rock pioneer Frank Zappa's repertoire and tours globally. And at the center of it all is Green, who alternately serves as teacher, bully, manager, best friend, and worst enemy.
Whereas School of Rock is a feel-good take on the tension between reveling in the glories of anti-establishment rock 'n' roll and becoming part of the establishment (i.e., growing up), Rock School ratchets those tensions up to eleven with displays of brilliance, enthusiasm, melancholy, and frailty—all juxtaposed against and influenced by Green's often unsettling, usually abusive teaching style. He openly mocks one student's Quaker faith. He makes fun of another's clinical depression and suicidal tendencies. He threatens the students with a recitation of the story of how he lost his virginity if they don't shape up. If they don't nail their pieces well enough to be featured in one of the school's shows, Green warns them that he'll tell the offended parents that their kids are lazy and smoke pot. In between such threats there's lots of profanity-laced yelling and stomping around. Green's a bona fide jerk and the kids, for better or for worse, love him.
Among those kids is 12-year-old C.J., a sweet-spirited musical prodigy whose guitar skills inspire those around him to bow down and worship, sometimes quite literally. Two nine-year-old twins, Asa and Tucker, provide the most comic relief as mini would-be rockers. Their mom, an apparent fan of '70s rock herself, extols the virtues of rock school as something that brings families together. She gladly spikes her son's hair into a mohawk and turns her daughter into a mini blond Ozzy Osbourne, complete with black cross on her forehead, for a Black Sabbath tribute show—though she does draw the line at one point: "No, you cannot have a pentagram on your forehead."
Madi, the Quaker from Lancaster County who is frequently mocked, butts heads with Green frequently but keeps coming back and getting better at her craft. Her friends, the Friendly Gangstas, a rap outfit that puts Quaker hymns to hip-hop beats, make a brief and hilarious appearance. And then there's Will, a 16-year-old misfit who has a one-armed mother and frequently reminds people of his three suicide attempts while waxing philosophical about life. He says if it weren't for the School of Rock Music he'd probably be dead. Will is, in Green's words, a "piss poor" musician, but it's telling that, knowing this, Green sought out and invited Will to come to rock school anyway. Hovering just below the maniacal surface of Green's persona, he really cares about these kids, even if his methods of motivating them are questionable, to say the least.
It's Will who seems to hit the nail on the head when he diagnoses Green's "Peter Pan" complex. "It's a lovable quirk that he's mentally disturbed," Will says. And despite being a self-proclaimed great teacher, it's notable that you never see Green actually providing a music lesson. He's more the tyrant type and I suspect that his staff plays a vital role in actually keeping the School of Rock rockin'. I would have liked to see more of them in action.
The movie poses plenty of questions about the nature of talent, flamed-out youth, and mentoring. Is Green, an accomplished musician who put himself through an Ivy League college, simply a failed rocker living vicariously through his students? And if so, is that a bad thing? Does his teaching style force students to reach beyond what they think they're capable of and, in doing so, cultivate greatness? Or is he doing more harm than good? Would you, after watching this movie, leave your child alone with Paul Green?
Regardless of your answers to these questions, it's impossible to deny that Green is a complicated and compelling character, and Rock School is a well-crafted documentary. At times it seems to reference another classic rock 'n' roll travelogue, Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz, but the ciné ma vérité style employed here is more immediate and less rehearsed. The school's narrow hallways crackle with energy (and fear as Green stomps through them), and when the All-Stars take the stage at a Zappa festival in Germany, you can feel the butterflies in their stomachs. Watching them band together to rock—and the faces of the audience and participants when they realize what these kids are capable of—is a joy.
At one point in the movie Green reveals his hopes for his work at the School of Rock Music. They entail picking up a copy of Rolling Stone in 2007 to find rock journalists asking where did all these great new bands come from? "And all the sudden they start tracing stuff back to me," he says with a wistful look in his eyes. Some dreams never die.Discussion starters
- Can you teach rock 'n' roll? Does forming a curriculum around the music strip its rebel soul or does it elevate the art form to the next level?
- In a pep talk to several students prior to a Black Sabbath tribute concert, Paul Green deadpans, "This is not about you. This is not about me. This is not about the music. This is about Satan." He's joking (I think). But it begs the question: Do we really want nine-year-olds mimicking Ozzy Osbourne? More broadly, should we encourage kids' rock 'n' roll dreams? What are the moral implications given that Green certainly doesn't seem to make an effort to steer his students away the pitfalls (drugs, sex, etc.) that are often linked with a rock lifestyle?
- Why do you think most of the students keep coming back despite Paul Green's tantrums?
- Will says Green has a "Peter Pan" complex. Do you agree with that assessment? What do you think really motivates his work at the School of Rock?like these?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Prolific profanity and casual references to sex and drug use make this school for adults only.
Photos © Copyright Universal Picturescompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 06/09/05
Remember School of Rock, the comedy with the alarming premise that Jack Black might be posing as a high school teacher and training young children to be rock stars?
Guess what: Paul Green is not a fictional character. He's not Jack Black, but he is teaching kids how to strut and jam like rock stars. Rock School is a documentary about Green and his Philadelphia-based program—the Paul Green School of Rock. You'll see Green running his school like a cranky drill sergeant, foul language and all. But you'll also be surprised at how the kids respond.
Mainstream critics reviewing the film resemble an enthusiastic mosh pit.
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