On paper, the premise for Gene Simmons’ new reality show is genius. Put the singer/songwriter/bassist from multi-platinum KISS (a self-described “arrogant asshole”) in charge of a bunch of British prep school kids à la School of Rock. Make sure the educational environment is snooty enough that students have little or no connection to today’s music. Then set a goal (the group will be the opening act at a Motorhead concert). If Simmons can’t transform these sophisticated children into heavy metal maniacs in six weeks, his power chord cred will be destroyed.
It should work. But there are no guarantees in the world of culture clash tv. Tommy Lee Goes to College proves that hedonism is boring when it’s scripted, Hogan Knows Best that Hulk and his entire family are just fame hogs. Simmons, however, seems up to the challenge.
He’s not just some conceited jerk who believes in his own faded myth. He’s the shrewdest of businessmen, having built what was essentially a kabuki act on amplifiers into a musical dynasty. He bucks tradition by fathering children with his longtime partner, actress Shannon Tweed (they have never married), and admits to thousands of trysts while playing rock and roll god. Inserting him into surroundings as somber and strict as those at the 450-year-old Christ’s Hospital School, where students wear uniforms that look like those fetish overcoats in The Matrix, is inspired.
Gene Simmons’ Rock School is a funny and fresh take on an old idea (think: To Sir, With Love starring Satan). As with everything he does, Simmons demonstrates dedication to the job, admitting that he briefly taught in Spanish Harlem before making it big. The kids are also keen to learn, reared in an education system that values the practical application of knowledge. And the administration at Christ’s Hospital sees nothing but good from an interaction of these two divergent worlds.
At least, that’s what it says at first. Within 15 minutes of the opening episode, Mary Ireland, the Deputy Head of the school, is lamenting Simmons’ “unorthodox” teaching methods (blasting Queen’s “We Will Rock You” very loudly down the halls and engaging the kids in “cool” lessons). But even when he is testing everyone’s patience and aggravating authorities, Simmons is intent on his goal. He realizes rock is less about precision and more about heart, and he’s come to Christ’s Hospital to unlock the kids’ passion. Watching them throw hand signs and flail their limbs in air guitar glory is like witnessing an awakening. After a few classes with Mr. Simmons, they begin to blossom into outgoing, ordinary adolescents.
Rock School also reveals some interesting dynamics among the students. Just because they attend a fancy boarding school doesn’t mean these kids aren’t cliquey. Simmons’ choice of a lead singer does not go over well with the class. Red-haired Joshua is an “Elvish”-speaking Lord of the Rings lover who nicknames himself “Emperor.” He is also the shy boy everyone picks on. Yet he seems desperate to break out of his glorified geek role. Simmons obviously tunes into his desire to be accepted, and uses the frontman spot as a way to inspire a kind of automatic acceptance from the class.
Still, the look of anguish on the non-chosen’s faces is telling. It proves two vital things. First, even for “gifted” students, school is still about approval and rejection. Second, Simmons has actually reached these kids. Before he arrived, most admitted to the camera that they could care less about rock music or being musicians. But after spending time in the persuasive presence of KISS’ demonic daddy, they all want to be part of the dream.
With more slots to be filled, rehearsals to be had, and a final “exam” concert to perform, these neophyte headbangers will have their work cut out for them. And here’s hoping that Rock School doesn’t take the easy way out. In keeping with Simmons’ “no bullshit” attitude, failure and triumph should both be on display. No band starts out as stars. The road to fame is paved with dedication and defeat. No journey is perfect.
Neither is Rock School. Frankly, the sole flaw in this otherwise entertaining show is the nonstop narration provided by Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider. Simmons can surely speak for himself. When he’s standing in front of the classroom, stripped of his makeup and freak show facade, you see a man who genuinely cares for these students. And even though they act intimidated and perplexed, you sense their respect and responsiveness. It’s this coming together of cultures — not the promised clash — that strikes the most resonant note in Rock School. It is emotional and uplifting. Simmons means to teach these students what he knows about rock and roll. But it also looks like he has an additional series of life lessons to share.