Before there was School of Rock, the 2003 movie in which Jack Black awakened a class of subdued elementary-school kids with lessons in America's loudest subject, there was rock school. Students of the Paul Green School of Rock Music in Philadelphia have been worshiping at rock's altar -- and learning how to play the hell out of their instruments -- since 1998.
Rock School, the fine new documentary about Green's phenomenon, takes a close look at the teacher and some of his students, ages nine to seventeen. Through hilarious and charming interviews with the kids, extended chat sessions with Green, a few words from parents and a healthy dose of performance footage, we get a sense of what sort of community Green has created, for better and worse. The central question is this: Is Paul Green a good teacher? The arguments go as follows: On the one hand, he teaches the kids how to rock -- how to really, really rock; on the other hand, he's an asshole.
Green shares quite a bit with Jack Black's character. By his own description, the school's founder is an amalgam of several types and ages: "As a twelve-year-old, I was the nerdy little kid. As a sixteen-year-old, I was kind of the cool-guy guitar player. So I kind of have a little bit of both, with the fat bald guy mixed in." Black, too, had the elements of boyish rebel, guitar-god teen and aging burnout -- the guy who still can't believe that his own band didn't make it, which is also true for Green. And both men are raving maniacs, prone to sudden paroxysms of feeling -- in Green's case, anger. The difference is that Black's character never let loose on the kids. He never lit into them for sucking. He never pulled one out of a chair and threw him on the floor, even if only in the service of a skit. He never compared one to the other, saying, point blank, "She's better than you."
While in one breath Green pays homage to the positive-reinforcement school of teaching, in the next he tears a student to shreds. "If you don't tell a kid what they can't do, they may never find out," he coos -- and cut, to a school meeting in which Green says, "He's a piss-poor musician." He's talking about Will, a whip-smart boy with several suicide attempts under his belt. When one of the other kids asks Green to stop teasing, Green cups a hand to his mouth and says, "It's or-fay the ovie-may."
What seems most true is that Green doesn't have any particular philosophy of teaching. He's fierce in his devotion to the music, and he's determined to help the kids succeed. Beyond that, he acts out, flying into a rage if the spirit moves him. Green's a performer, endlessly amused by the perceived poetry of his speechifying, and half of what he says -- more than half? -- is bullshit. He gets away with so much because it's often merely theater. But can the students tell when it is and when it isn't?
One parent holds that you can't argue with success, and there's no denying that Green brings his star pupils to jaw-dropping levels of performance. His Zappa All-Stars are phenomenal, and their end-of-the-film journey to the Zappanale Festival in Germany is well worth the wait. But not all students at rock school are succeeding. In fact, quite a few never make it to the all-star groups. Will explains that there's an ethos at rock school that if you work hard, you'll get good, but soon enough some realize that no matter how hard they work, they'll never be as good as, for example, C.J., a twelve-year-old guitar master. Will calls this "disillusioning," but it seems it could be worse.
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There's another mistaken assumption to the "don't mess with success" argument. Simply because (some of) Green's kids are excelling doesn't mean that his methods are appropriate. Yes, he takes them to stupefying levels of achievement, but why must he abuse them as well? Why can't he rock hard, convey knowledge, inspire passion and be kind at the same time?
Rock School never quite asks that question -- or Green never answers it. He defends his methods in so many ways, at so many different times throughout the movie, that none of them gains any footing. Meanwhile, his students are lovely people, good kids, many of whom seem to understand their teacher better than he understands himself. "It's a lovable quirk that he's mentally disturbed," Will says. And though that might be rehearsed -- Will is also a performer -- it speaks of a knowingness that the teacher doesn't quite have.
In the end, Rock School works because the conflict stands: Green is who he is, and the kids will keep coming. What they gain will be tempered by what they lose, or suffer, but that's true of most things in life.