The tutor of Rock School, the documentary, claims Hollywood based last year’s School of Rock on his school. And there are uncanny similarities between Jack Black’s character in the movie and the documentary’s juvenile, untamed real-life tutor Paul Green.
Philadelphia’s School of Rock Music is an after hours school for nine to 17 year olds. The kids learn how to rock with their hearts and play like Frank Zappa, Dave Gilmour or Tony Iommi. But it is not simply the doc of the movie, this Rock School celebrates diversity and hormones with a pinch of Spinal Tap.
The heart of Rock School is whether Green’s relives his lost teen spirit through his students. There is no denying he loves rock and the way he fosters this love in others is the charm of the documentary. He sets up gigs for his students performing Black Sabbath, promoting it as “Satan’s night”, geeing them up like a high school sports coach with pre-gig group shouts of “Satan!” The students love it – who wouldn’t? Their enthusiasm is captured in delightful detail as they prepare for the show with eyeliner and back-combed hair.
But is Green a bullying tyrant or supportive father figure? One pupil says he is like a second dad, but Will, a depressive teen, agrees with his parents that he is an overgrown teenager, and Madi, a practicing Quaker, puts up with taunts about her religion and Quaker rap outfit, The Friendly Gangstas. Green teeters on the edge as a role model, describing one student as having rock in her heart and a heroin strung out look.
There are many laugh out loud moments as Green plays out fantasies of fighting the Vietcong to the kids; makes asides to the camera; and has tantrums at students’ lack of musical ability, slamming doors and kicking walls. All these add up to an uneasy feeling that this is more spoof than doc with Green as willing accomplice.
There is a contrived structure to the documentary and the all too perfect finale at the ultimate Rock School gig, the annual Zappanale in Germany. Here original Mothers of Invention band members and tribute bands come to play to an adoring crowd from around the world. MoI survivor Napoleon Murphy-Brock plays with the school on Inca Roads. The kids play its psychedelic riffs and tempos with supreme intelligence. Janis Joplin style vocals from Madi float over the heads of the wide-mouthed audience and despite a debilitating bone disease guitar student CJ riffs within an inch of his life. They win the crowd over and bring everyone, including Murphy-Brock, to their knees.
The success of this documentary lies in the fact that it presents an America that doesn’t celebrate kids behaving like adults in beauty pageants or reality TV competitions. Rock School celebrates a teen spirit of dyed hair, body piercing, rock attitude and mature dedication to music regardless of the finished product. These kids aren’t playing at being adults or mimicking them, they are playing for themselves.