Meeting Place for Misfits
Was she round?
And did she have a motor?
Or was she something different?
—Frank Zappa, “Inca Roads”
Self-loving and foul-mouthed, Paul Green is the ideal star of his own show. At least this is the story he tells. At the same time, however, as documented by Don Argott’s Rock School, Green is also an oddly selfless benefactor, generous and involved in the lives and aspirations of his students to the point that neither he nor they can quite tell when he’s performing and when he’s not.
Wherever it begins or ends, Green’s act is a compelling one. “My ego,” he says, “is as big as the whole universe. I invented something so I could be the best at it.” His invention, launched in 1998, is the Paul Green School of Rock Music. He means to teach his students how to rock, to absorb and spit out the rockin’ spirit typically attributed to the devil (Jack-Blackishly, he demands to know, “Do you love Satan?”), to feel the awesome power of Music with a big M. His approach to mentoring is only apparently brutal, and the kids he takes on as mentees fight him and love him at the same time. Some stand up under the barraging, others fall back, but they all appear to come out more effective musicians.
The film follows his work with a particular group, whom he schools in the intricacies of Frank Zappa—the film closes with their trip to a Zappa festival in Bad Doberon, East Germany, where they play “Inca Roads” with former Zappa vocalist Napoleon Murphy Brock. The route to this climax—and it is excellent—is structured around Green’s affection for his own philosophy, energy, and voice. Calculatedly, Rock School doesn’t actually display the kids’ full-on talents until the end, by which point you’re quite anxious to hear them, as he’s been denigrating their lack of dedication and tendency to err during rehearsals throughout (“Don’t fucking make mistakes! Not in “Rebel Yell”!).
Among the students profiled are Madi Diaz-Svalgard, a Quaker who likes to sing Sheryl Crow songs and also argues back when Green pushes too hard, and the nine-year-old twins, Asa and Tucker Collins (whose mother is a self-admitted untalented, wannabe rock star who helps them get ready for performances by limiting the emblems they might wear: Mohawk okay, but no “666” temporary tattoos). The one student who appears right off as a scalding talent is 12-year-old guitar prodigy C.J. Tywoniak. While his parents, interviewed together, occasionally wonder at Green’s methods, they also see that their brilliant young son is flourishing, acknowledging that C.J. is simply not geared for Juilliard. Able to make “Black Magic Woman” sound serious, he backs up the other students with the kind of virtuoso guitar work that makes listeners gasp with pleasure: this and the fact that he’s a tiny kid suffering from a bone disorder make C.J. an easy favorite for Paul as well as the other Rock Schoolers.
Among the lesser lights—at least in the film’s construction of him—is the articulate, exceptionally self-aware Will O’Connor, diagnosed early in his lifetime as “retarded,” and so often left to his own devices; sullen and morose, he feels anointed when Green takes him on as a student, weathering the verbal abuses like a trooper, including cracks about his suicidal tendencies and his lack of talent (a Philadelphia Inquirer article calls him “the sad Eyore of rock school,” a line that understandably annoys poor Will and makes Green joke even more ruthlessly at his expense, as when he considers offering “the Will O’Connor award for kid most likely to kill himself”).
Will observes that Green has his own limits with regard to self-understanding and goals, as he seems a “Peter Pan” figure, “surrounding himself with children so he never has to grow up.” While this certainly looks true, it’s not necessarily terrible, as Green’s madness does work for select, self-driven, feisty individuals. While he does see music as miraculous sort of vocation, where you can please yourself, master a remarkable skill, and “make other people happy,” all at the same time, he also sees the risk he takes, with regard to his own egotistical anxieties: teaching gifted students, he will eventually produce a student who plays better guitar than he does, try as he might to stay ahead, to learn new tricks, to remain potent and self-satisfied.
Such insights, spoken intermittently in Rock School, grant Green more sympathy than he might otherwise warrant, based on his performance for the camera. (Don Argott directs, interviews, and shoots, meaning that his subjects, including Green, address him by name, underlining both their mutual respect and sense of intimacy.) “If you’re not gonna work for me and you’re not gonna listen, I have no use for you,” Green tells his students, making it sound for all the world like this school is indeed all about him. But when at last you hear the kids perform, and the camera cuts to Green’s face lit up with pride and delight, you start to believe that, maybe even despite himself, these little wonders are really his focus. And it is here as well that the documentary reveals itself as less a portrait of a quirky teacher than an investigation of music’s transformative power.