Thursday, September 22, 2005

Rock School / ***½ (R)

Paul Green, C.J. Tywoniak, Will O’Connor, Madi Diaz Svalgard, Tucker Collins, Asa Collins, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Eric Svalgard, Andrea Collins, Chris Lampson, Monique Del Rosario, Brandon King, Lisa Rubens, Lisa Green, Jimmy Carl Black.

Newmarket Films presents a documentary directed by Don Argott. Running Time: 93 min. Rated R (for language).

The opening of the documentary Rock School shows us a twelve year old playing the guitar riffs of Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” as if he were the legend himself. The kid plays the famous solo note for note, exactly as we all know it from Santana’s studio recording. We think from this introduction that this will be a film about musical prodigies taking a whack at a pop culture rock movement that we’d all like a taste of. Some might even get the impression from the perfect mimicry that the musical landscape of the child performers will merely be a stale replica of the rock music many of us idolize. Instead Rock School is a testament to the power of music and how wonderfully it can be used as a tool for teaching lessons of life and maturation of self. Even more so it is an amazing character study of Paul Green, the man who founded one of the most popular independent music programs in the country and was the basis for the character portrayed by Jack Black in the movie School of Rock.

We learn that Green was a struggling musician, trying to run the racket of being in a band, getting gigs, getting his kicks doing what he loved, playing rock music. Of course, it wasn’t the life we get to read about and see in the rock magazines. He was poor, struggling and dealing with typical non-success problems like band break ups and even successful band problems like artistic differences. As a kick, he would get together with kids and do sort of tutorial/appreciation session that eventually evolved into his own rock school. The Paul Green School of Rock Music soon had a list of thousands vying to enroll to its rock teachings for 9 to 16 year-olds. There are different programs for different skill levels and each program level gets practical experience by putting on themed concerts. In this film the beginner program puts on an evening of Black Sabbath songs while the All-Star group practices for a Frank Zappa tribute festival held in Germany each year called Zappanale, which serves as the climax to the film.
We start out by meeting several of the school’s students of various levels of accomplishment.

There are the Collins twins, Tucker and Asa, who in Green’s own words “will probably never be any good.” CJ is the twelve year old from the opening, who is already a guitar god and clearly is the school’s biggest success and star. Madi seems to be Green’s favorite in the way his own child might be “favored” in his program. He is clearly harder on her than any one else because he “sees so much potential in her.” He ridicules her at first for wanting to play Sheryl Crow songs, but she ends up soaring in her moments in the Zappa All-Stars. And Will is Green’s personal hard luck case, a kid who was never given a chance in life before Green asked him to attend his school. Although Will is “piss poor” according to Green “and will probably never get any better,” he is the best example of the school’s success and worthiness as an institution that can shape and improve the lives of its students.

The parents also are represented in a few cases. Andrea Collins is a great example of one of those parents who is living her own dream vicariously through her children, which may explain why the twins’ commitment level isn’t quite up to some of the other student’s standards. She describes her self as like a “soccer mom” but with a different twist. It is clear who is really getting something out of the school during a scene in which she is preparing the twins for their Black Sabbath concert as she discusses with them why one of them can have an inverted cross on his head and the other can’t. It has something to do with the particular Ozzy Osborne outfit each is wearing.

Green himself is a character above and beyond anything Jack Black presents in the Hollywood movie with all the cute kids. Sure I could see Black playing this guy as he really is, but then no one would like him anymore. Green is a raving maniac who yells at his students, curses incessantly and is stuck in a time of music that is revered but most certainly past. He admits that he probably couldn’t have made in the rock world today because he is really in love with the rock world of 1972. But it is his passion and devotion to the music that he does love that drives this school and fills so many of his students with a purpose in life.

Green cannot be accused of not caring. There is a scene with his infant son where he is already trying to get the kid to strum a cord. “They are never too young to start… Can you say Jethro Tull?” He preaches rock as a way of life where there are no boundaries and he utilizes no boundaries in his teaching. He tells the nine year olds in his beginner group that the Black Sabbath concert is not about them or the music, “It’s about Satan.” He does not adhere to the current trend in education of never comparing students, but freely tells students, “She is better than you. What are you going to do about it?” He berates students for not understanding that these are classics that must be played in complete reverence. “Realizing you made a mistake isn’t enough! Don’t make mistakes! Not on ‘Rebel Yell’!!!!!”

Perhaps the most moving part of this film is the growth of Will. When Paul met Will, he was a kid whom no one had ever given a chance. It was thought by his family and doctors that he was mentally handicapped until a late age. He had attempted suicide on several occasions and had no friends. Green gives Will no special treatment. He was one of the kids who received the “Rebel Yell” lashing, but Will never speaks ill of Green. Will realizes that Green played an important role in his life and speaks more intelligently than anyone else in the film’s closing moments when he speaks of how he and Green finally parted ways.

I had my own rock mentor during my formative years in my best friend Trevor Walsh. He instilled me with a passion for listening to music, if not actually playing it. Music has meant a great deal to me in my life and Green’s passion for it displayed in this movie perfectly exemplifies how powerful music can be to all it touches. His passion overflows even into those whose don’t share it on the same level. The closing comments offered up by the twins say it all: “Party on,” and “Long live rock.” And the final concert by the Zappa All-Stars carries those seeds of discovery that can draw you into an obsession like music. My obsession continues and I’d like to ask my buddy Trev, “Do you have any suggestions for a good starting place to begin exploring Zappa?”

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