Forget School of Rock, watch the real thing! When I first saw a preview for Rock School I was under the impression that it was perhaps the true story that School of Rock (a Jack Black movie in which an elementary school teacher teaches his kids to play rock music) was based on. However, when I researched both movies, I could find no correlation. I have never seen School of Rock, but I think that if you liked it, you will love Rock School. And I also believe that if you didn’t like it, you will still like this movie. So let me just begin by saying I loved this movie.
Rock School is a humorous, inspiring, unique documentary that explores Paul Green’s Rock School, an after school program in Philadelphia, PA where Paul Green (the focal point of the film), among other music aficionados, teaches children ranging from 9 to 17 years old to play rock music, and to play it well. Paul is not messing around when he teaches these kids. His philosophy is that if you don’t treat kids as though they cannot perform a difficult task (such as play a really difficult piece of music), they will be able to do amazing things. Using this philosophy, a weird sense of humor, and plenty of tough love, Paul teaches an elite group of 12 to 17 year old kids to play Frank Zappa music well enough to perform in the huge Zappa tribute concert in Germany called Zappanale.
This film is filled with characters. Paul Green himself is a classic protagonist: the lovable jerk. Sure, it may be surprising to see a music teacher who works with children threatening to tell them the “not pretty” story of how he lost his virginity if they don’t play well. Yeah, he’s rude, he’s coarse, he yells and screams and swears at little kids, but come on, he’s fun. He’s funny. And it’s clear he really cares about the kids. He’s honest and direct with them, and he never tries to sugarcoat things for them or talk down to them. He treats them like people instead of treating them little kids. That may mean that he yells at them and insults their abilities from time to time, but he doesn’t want his program to be about fooling around and maybe learning a chord or two. He wants it to be about playing complex rock music, and playing it the way it was meant to be played.
He teaches discipline, he teaches hard work. And if he has a student that’s not living up to his or her potential, he won’t hesitate to tell him or her. Whether he’s telling them they don’t practice enough or that they need to have more of stage presence when they sing or play guitar, Paul does not beat around the bush. Eric Svalgard, a keyboard teacher in the program and Paul’s mild-mannered counterpart, may not entirely agree with Paul’s methods, but as he says, “You can’t argue with success.”
This doesn’t mean that Paul is all yelling and tough love. He’s seen several times throughout the film playing and joking with the kids in an affectionate manner, and though they sometimes seem frustrated with him or angry at him, they usually seem to take his anger with a grain of salt, enjoy his sense of humor, and talk to him as if he were a friend as opposed to an authority figure. Most of all, they seem comfortable with him. He can also be complimentary if he thinks its deserved (but the students have to work hard to deserve it).
CJ may be the most deserving of Paul’s praise. The child prodigy of the film, CJ Tywoniak is a sweet young boy (couldn’t be more than 12 or 13) who can play guitar like he was born doing it. He’s the shining star of the film, and as Paul says, “CJ is going to make us all a lot of money someday.” CJ has an incredible stage presence too, and appears much older than he is when he plays guitar. He’s focused without seeming stiff, and into the music without being melodramatically showy. He plays so well at Zappanale that he gets Napoleon Murphy Brock, a member of the original Zappa band, to bow down to him onstage. From there, Brock turns to face the crowd, still bowing, and gets them all to bow down to CJ too.
Will O’Connor, in contrast, may be the least musically gifted member of rock school that gets face time in the documentary. Still, he’s by far one the most interesting characters in the film, and in my experience, those who have watched the film either love him or hate him. But how can you hate a kid whose first interview in the film begins with “I was a C-section” and uses the phrase “my mother’s uterus”? Will is certainly a sad character and talks about how he’s tried to commit suicide since he was a child. But he’s also smart, endearing, and he “gets” Paul in a way that many of the others do not.
Paul, of course, makes no bones about telling Will he’s a terrible musician, but Will seems to respect and like him anyway (though he also knows better than to put Paul on a pedestal). Eventually Will leaves rock school, but he speaks fondly of it, recognizing its significance in lines such as “Rock school is bigger than Paul. And I think he knows it.”
Finally, there’s the adorable loving family featuring the 9-year-old Asa and Tucker Collins, and their magenta-haired mom, who Paul refers to as “a soccer mom without the soccer.” Paul teaches Asa and Tucker to play Black Sabbath and though they’re not great at singing (well come on, they are only 9), they totally pull off the look and the stage presence. There’s really cute footage of their mom putting on their makeup before the show, and they look great. Their interviews aren’t edited to make them seem profound and professional, but rather portray them just as they are: as kids. In one interview, Tucker is answering a question while Asa sits beside him, roaring into and playing with the microphone attached to his tie. Their mom comes across as a loving and dedicated mother who is incredibly supportive without being pushy or forceful.
The focus of the film is mainly on the people it portrays; namely, Paul and the students. The film is like a colorful collage of the entire experience of rock school and all the crazy characters involved, so if you want to see a lot of the process that the kids go through and get a clear idea of what rock school is like on a daily basis, you may be disappointed. But if you want to see some kids play the hell out of some Zappa, you won’t be disappointed.
Admittedly, this film is not for everyone. Those going into it expecting it to be chronological and educational, and focused on things such as the techniques of playing and teaching rock music, are probably not going to like the film too much. But it is undeniably fun, funny, and uplifting, and filled with endearing people.
If you rent the DVD, be sure to watch the deleted scenes. There’s a bunch of them, and most of them are short, funny, and interesting snippets that just didn’t really fit anywhere in the film but are definitely worth watching. One of my favorite deleted scene moments is Paul’s attempt at “positive reinforcement” as he tells a room full of students: “The following people were good today: nobody.” The deleted scenes also show a few students who weren’t really shown or focused on within the film and go more in-depth with some of the students who were shown.
So if this sounds like something you’d like, rent it today. I hope you love it.