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Rock School

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/02/05 23:49:37

"A joyful celebration of the power of teaching and rock."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Paul Green will probably never win any official “Teacher of the Year” award. He will most likely never be the subject of one of those fluff pieces that pop up at the end of the news on especially slow days. His salty tongue, abrasive manner and over-the-top attitude no doubt repel as many people as they amuse. Nevertheless, there is a method to his seeming madness and for those who respond to his unusual methods, he is the kind of increasingly rare teacher who actually gets through to the students and makes a genuine difference in their lives and the highly entertaining new documentary “Rock School” shows him as he goes about what he sees as his mission in life–to take raw and unformed kids and turn them into genuine Gods of Rock.

That’s right, rock music–an art form that has always been fueled by the notion that it can be done by anyone who can put together three chords (two if you are the Ramones). Green is the owner and leader of the Paul Green School of Rock Music, a Philadelphia institution that takes kids ranging in ages from 9-17 and tries to teach them how to properly perform rock music with all the heart and soul that great music requires. His methods may come as a shock to outsiders–he deploys the “F”-word with enough frequency to earn the film an “R” rating (thereby keeping it away from the very audiences that would benefit most from it), he browbeats his students mercilessly when they muff a part and teases them for such crimes against rock as being a Sheryl Crow fan.

However, there is a method to his madness–by refusing to kowtow to them, he forces his charges to push themselves to higher levels than even many seasoned professionals could hope to accomplish. One of Green’s idols is the late Frank Zappa, who was infamous for his unfathomably complex musical compositions–instead of starting with basic tunes, Green throws them into the deep end by giving them Zappa songs like “Inca Roads” to work on Sure, they struggle at first but the kids respond to the pressure and get so good (not just kids-playing-rock good but good-good) that they get invited to a Zappa festival in Germany and blow away the audience–a group that includes such former Zappa sidemen as Napoleon Murphy Brock and Jimmy Carl Black.

Although the notion of a school dedicated to teaching rock music to kids is an appealing hook for a documentary, the sight of little kids wailing away on rock standards by itself is only good for a finite period of time. Luckily, filmmaker Don Argott got lucky by hitting upon a class full of kids that are just as intriguing in their own right. Mari, the aforementioned Sheryl Crow fan, is a talented singer/musician whose Quaker beliefs (especially the revelation that she has performed with a Quaker rap group) inspires much teasing from Paul. Will O’Connor is a less-talented musician than most of his classmates but can claim, as you will see, that Paul and rock music have literally saved his life. Then there are my favorites, Asa and Tucker Collins, a pair of adorable young twins who partially explain their seemingly astonishing musical prowess by deadpanning, “AC/DC is really simple.”

Of course, many will compare this film to Richard Linklater’s “School of Rock” and Green to that film’s star, the irrepressible Jack Black (though Green’s school existed before the film), especially since Green and Black have similarly astonishing energy as they bound around preaching the gospel of rock music. The films are essentially apples and oranges but they do have one key thing in common–both point out, in their own crackpot ways, just how important an inspired teacher–one who is driven more by a desire to reach their students instead of muddling through the day with a minimum of fuss and conflict. These are the teachers that wind up making a genuine difference in the lives of their students and they are the ones that the films celebrate. With “School of Rock,” such a creature could be dismissed as just another fictional creation. “Rock School,” on the other hand, proves that such people still exist and for those kids lucky enough to have someone like that in their lives, it is a celebration of those reckless individuals willing to make a difference to their charges by any means necessary.

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