Rock School
Rock School

USA, 2005. Rated R. 93 minutes.

Cast: Paul Green, "Will," "Asa," "Tucker," "C.J.," "Madi," Napoleon Murphy-Brock
Music Supervisor: Charles Raggio
Cinematography: Don Argott
Editor: Demian Fenton
Producers: Sheena M. Joyce, Don Argott
Director: Don Argott


Grade: C Review by Carlo Cavagna

I n 2001, the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys gave us the story of how skateboarding evolved into a competitive sport on the streets of Venice Beach. Flip the title around and change “boys” to something a little more manly, and in 2005 we've got a fictional big-budget studio film about the same subject: Lords of Dogtown.

Here, we go in the opposite direction, from fiction to documentary. In 2003, we had the studio formula comedy School of Rock, about an overweight man-child teaching kids how to rock and roll. Flip the title around in 2005, and we get a documentary about almost the same thing. That's Rock School.

The real-life Dewey Finn (Jack Black's character in School of Rock) is Paul Green. He has founded an actual school in Philadelphia that teaches kids rock and roll—how to play it, and how to perform it. Except that, unlike Dewey Finn, Paul is a hardass.

Paul Green with a student
Paul Green (right) with "C.J." in Rock School.

He screams. He insults. He throws temper tantrums. Yet he knows exactly how his students think and talk, and commnicates with them in exactly the same way. And he also knows what Romanian gymnastics coaches have known for decades: that coddling kids to preserve their self-esteem is not necessarily compatible with teaching them the practice and discipline required to learn difficult skills.

Much of Paul's nerve-wracking pinball-machine energy is for show, as he readily admits. He gets results, at least with the kids who don't walk away. This isn't just a school for kids who want to fool around with loud instruments plugged into large amplifiers. This is a school where kids learn their chops. Paul Green doesn't just teach them the basics. He teaches them Led Zeppelin, Santana, and the most difficult rock he can think of…the work of Frank Zappa. Paul's goal is to make them into guitar gods and drumming wizards, so that they can perform at a German Zappa festival called Zappanale—with and at the same level as adults. The most impressive result is CJ, a twelve-year old prodigy who plays licks he shouldn't be able to play.

Despite controversial teaching methods, Paul is disarmingly honest. He readily admits that he lives his rock-star dreams through the kids. He talks about reconciling Paul the guitar player, who wants to be the best, and Paul the guitar teacher, who wants his students to exceed him.

The more serious question is: Do Paul's results come at the expense of the happiness of the kids? Some of the kids don't seem to mind Paul's antics. “It's a lovable quirk that he's mentally disturbed,” says one of the older ones. But another student thinks that some kids do get lost at Paul's school, and that it's difficult to find solace in Paul's dictatorial music choices, even though they probably made him a better musician. Teaching the kids technique comes at the expense of allowing them to express themselves, which is why people are usually drawn to music in the first place.

It's interesting subject matter, but is Rock School a good documentary? Director Don Argott works with muddy, low-quality digital video, not compellingly edited, and doesn't dig as deep as he should. He misses an opportunity to take his examination beyond what we think of Paul, and how cool it is that there is such a school. He could look more closely at the kids themselves, for example, and how their lives are affected by Paul down the road, rather than just listen to their testimonials and grab a few quotes from their parents. After merely raising questions he should be seeking to answer, Argott seems to think that the kids' achievements are sufficient endorsement of Paul's methods. And that the success of School of Rock is sufficient raison d'être for making Rock School.

Review © June 2005 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2005 Newmarket Films. All Rights Reserved.

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