" Get all the good you can outta 17 ‘cuz it sure wears out in one helluva hurry. "
— Paul Newman, Hud

MRQE Top Critic

Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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“I’m going to give you the gift of rock!” says the head of the Paul Green School of Rock Music, and the primary subject of the documentary Rock School. Paul Green chews a lot of screen time analyzing his role in the lives of the kids he teaches at his Philadelphia after-school music center and his skills as a teacher. “I’m not qualified to teach. I have people on staff who have music degrees, for those parents...” his thought trails off. “But I have honed my craft and I have a lot to teach.”

“I want to help kids realize their potential,” Green says. But as Green blusters on over the course of Rock School, his goals come to seem situational. Starting his school, for example, wasn’t always just about the kids: “If I couldn’t be the best guitar player in the whole world, I invented something new I could be the best at.” “I try to get them out on stage as soon as possible, in front of as many people as possible. Then I become their manager in essence.” Later, “He’s going to make us a lot of money,” he says about one especially talented youngster.

Do Not Try This at Home

Illustrates the absurd difficulty of judging a teacher by a documentary
Illustrates the absurd difficulty of judging a teacher by a documentary

In the 2003 crowd-pleaser School of Rock, Jack Black played a teacher whose manic, slapdash approach to teaching kids how to rock out gave the film a silly, fun energy. In dramatic contrast, in Rock School Green berates and insults his students as if he were a tough sports coach to get them to play what he wants them to play. “You mess up once, I’ll fuckin’ punch your face in,” he screams at one young drummer. Green’s teaching methods include picking on the less talented kids and antagonizing the more talented ones to push them to work harder. Scene after scene shows Green’s bombast but filmmaker Don Argott leaves it frustratingly unclear whether the lessons contain any technical instruction on music.

Green admits that he puts on an act in front of cameras, reporters, and the kids, and that he exaggerates his criticisms of the kids to inspire them to prove him wrong in “a sophisticated game of good cop/bad cop.” Knowing this, though, doesn’t make him any easier to take. The kids often stare at Green as if he’s from another planet and clearly take him with heaps of salt. One shot of some artwork taped on the wall at the studio showed two identical curly-haired cartoon heads side by side, with hollering-wide mouths, one labeled “Happy Paul” and the other “Angry Paul.”

I Wish Motorhead Would Come Back

Green prefers classic ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s “guitar gods,” heavy metal bands like Black Sabbath, and idolizes Frank Zappa. He refuses to let the kids learn Prince’s “Purple Rain.” So it is painful to hear students like siblings Julie and Eric Slick say, “Paul has had such an influence on our musical taste. Before, I used to listen to 311 and Bush.” “Yeah, Korn, Limp Bizkit, crap like that.”

Reflects Madi Diaz-Svalgard, incredulous: “When I started, I was playing fucking Sheryl Crow songs.” Her father speaks candidly of his disappointment that Green’s endless teasing has changed his daughter’s attitude toward her activism as a Quaker; Madi has little more than contempt for her school and community once she becomes involved at the Paul Green School of Rock Music.

Another girl says, “When I started coming here, I was horrified! I thought this was some kind of cult.” She’s right, judging from the way the kids have to adapt to Paul Green’s idea of what constitutes rock music. Will, the most critical of the kids interviewed, says wistfully: “I felt more solace in the music I chose to listen to before.”

Shall We Take Ourselves Seriously?

The kids’ musicianship in Rock School ultimately inspires. “It sounds cheesy,” concludes Madi, “but I learned I can do anything if I work at it.” Madi belts out lines and sings complex harmonies, taking great pride in her mastery of Frank Zappa’s challenging jazz and progressive-rock under Green’s tutelage. Yet the film also suggests that some talent may be native, and that being between the ages of 9 and 17 may prove an obstacle to learning how to play music. One gifted and focused 12-year-old boy, C.J. Tywoniak, plays soulful, note-perfect solos on songs by Carlos Santana, the Kinks, and Zappa. When the kids perform their Black Sabbath tribute as a group, however, they just don’t sound very good.

The film’s big payoff comes when a group of kids are invited to perform at the Zappanale, a five-day festival in Germany in which bands play the music of Frank Zappa. The kids dread “screwing up” in front of an audience of people who know Zappa’s music well, including musicians who played in Zappa’s band, the Mothers of Invention. “There’s too much on our shoulders,” says Madi before their set. Once on stage, however, the student group pulls off tight renditions of some of Zappa’s most complex and difficult tunes, and one of Zappa’s former bandmates, Napoleon Murphy-Brock, joins them on flute for a tune. The kids dazzle Brock, who leads the excited crowd in bowing down to the young musicians.

Murphy-Brock marvels at how these kids have been able to learn about music through the arrangements of the songs he wrote with Zappa: “It helps me understand why I did things the way I did at that time. Now I understand: I was preparing teaching tools for these kids.” His ability to share his joy and enthusiasm for the music made me wonder whether the kids might have learned more from a teacher like him, instead of the fear-inducing, tantrum-throwing Green. As I listened to the kids play at the Zappa festival, I thought that no matter how the kids performed, they wouldn’t win: If they did well, Green would take the credit; if they did poorly, he would rip them to shreds for it.

Is That All There Is?

“My parents call him Peter Pan because they think he leads the kids and doesn’t want to grow up. They think he should be more of an adult,” says one student. As more of an adult, Green might have appeared less provocative on film, but could have proven a better teacher and role model for the kids.

Former student Will O’Connor reflects on his time at the School of Rock with wit and insight. Will reflects on his painful childhood, saying after he had tried to commit suicide three times he found a new focus at the school. “Rock School probably saved my life.” Later he says, “It’s disillusioning when you try and it’s not even feasible to be that good. A lot of kids get lost at the Rock School.” Green calls him a “piss-poor musician” in front of his peers and says, “I think I have greatly overestimated Will’s ability to better himself.” Will and Green finally agree to part ways. As he looks back over his experience, Will has obviously found it valuable for its positive and negative aspects, in spite of not having brought him any closer to being a successful musician than he was before.

Ultimately Will’s lessons illustrate the absurd difficulty of judging a teacher by a documentary. If my kid wanted to be a rock star, however, I would be reluctant to send my kid to Paul Green after seeing him at work in Rock School.