A lazy documentary about a fascinating subject, “Rock School” is about what happens when an arrested development rock wannabe not only has a schoolful of children paying attention to him and his antics, but a worshipful camera following him around and recording them for posterity. The result isn’t pretty – but it does, on occasion, rock.
Paul Green is the afore-mentioned wannabe, a balding, tubby guy from Philadelphia who used to be in a band, which is about the extent of his demonstrable expertise in any field. Now he runs his own educational institution, named (in typically hubristic fashion) the Paul Green School of Rock Music, where about 120 kids aged 9 to 17 learn the finer and messier points of how to (and how not to) rock. Although Green seems at first blush like the nonfiction inspiration for Jack Black’s character in School of Rock, the story is that neither party had anything to do with the other; and in any case, Green is much less heartwarming a character than Black. The first real look we get of Green is him in the scruffy, cramped surroundings of the school itself – tiny practice rooms, blankets over the windows, and Metallica posters everywhere, a little slice of heaven for the right kind of kid – entertaining a roomful of kids with a frankly awful but certainly energetic imitation of Ted Levine in “Silence of the Lambs.” For the most part, though, we see him browbeating his charges into playing better, a system that seems to actually work – the temper tantrums and angrily hurled instruments help drive his points home.
Director Don Argott never seems to tire of filming the monomaniacal Green (who admits that he has an ego “as big as the whole universe”), which is a pity because though there are definitely less interesting characters to base a documentary around, it gives short shrift to the kids, who are for the most part a wonderfully non-precocious bunch. There’s Will, a brain-damaged teen with suicidal tendencies who seems to hang around more to feel at home with misfits than to actually learn an instrument. C.J. is a 12-year-old guitar virtuoso with a nearly frightening level of intensity that just about matches his talent. Less engaging are a pair of 9-year-old sisters who have (if we’re being honest) next to no talent and seem to be there for the twin reasons of having first a desire to play dress-up (one gets to rock out like Ozzy in a school concert) and second a demanding mother who admits to living vicariously through them.
Unfortunately, there’s no battle of the bands for the school to build up to and provide a typical underdog success story. We see a few concerts staged by Green, which are generally the dismal one would expect of stage-frightened kids trying to crank out Black Sabbath songs (Green’s musical taste is frozen at about 1972) in front of a skeptical audience. However, there is the annual Frank Zappa tribute festival in Germany, which the school A-list kids have been invited to perform at, a task that puts the Zappa-worshipping Green into manic overdrive.
Now, normally, ending a film with a bunch of teens and pre-teens doing Zappa covers at an outdoor festival of like-minded fanatics sounds like something reserved for one of the lower regions of hell. But somehow, in Argott’s film it actually works rather fantastically well as a coda to all the preening and screaming that preceded it. Hearing the band finally play, with virtuosic intensity in front of what could generously be described as a tough crowd, is an armhair-raising experience, and that’s before C.J. busts out with a face-melting solo that would make Steve Vai weep with envy. A further bonus to the film’s conclusion is the presence of former Zappa band member Napoleon Murphy-Brock, who plays a set with the kids. One slowly realizes, listening to and watches this unflappably mellow and positive guy, with his easy smile and resolutely retro haircut, that here is quite possibly the coolest individual ever to have graced a movie screen.
“Rock School”’s fault is that it seems to have fallen almost as in love with Paul Green as he is with himself, a dangerous combination that drags the film – which already has little in the way of forward momentum prior to the Zappa fest – to a near halt at times, producing long stretches of repetitive material (Green berating his charges, Green talking about himself, Green shouting some more). But perhaps it should be judged ultimately on the basics. Green wants to teach kids to rock, and for the most part, he does.