Rock School (2004)

“The way that Paul intro-ed this thing, and the way it all kind of flowed, I just knew while it was being shot and as soon as it was over that this was instantly going to be the opening of the film.” Director/DP Don Argott is nothing if not enthusiastic about his film, Rock School, and all the choices that went into it. For the DVD commentary track, he and his life partner/producer Sheena Joyce and editor Demian Fenton recall their decision-making processes, their initial thought that they shouldn’t instantly reveal the brilliance of 12-year-old guitar prodigy C.J. Tywoniak or the utter mania of rock school founder and director Paul Green. They do both.

Such moves ensure that the documentary is not so cloying or sentimental as it might have been, and that Green’s variously precocious students are set against and alongside a figure who is alternately irritating and inspiring. His passion is of a piece with Argott’s, at least, and together they have crafted an homage to the school, to Green, and to the kids who make music. Green is at once a tyrant and oddball, as well as 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 compelling. “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). Their introduction in the film provokes Argott and Joyce to underline their gender: “For god’s sake, says the producer, “He has a tie on!” as if this is all you need to mark gender in today’s rock universe… I could say something about Avril Lavigne, but why bother?).

The kids are most definitely the film’s pulse. For all Green’s self-love and the filmmakers’ self-evaluation (“I couldn’t wait to show everybody else the footage with the [twins],” says Argott, proud as well that the approach to the film. “It really was done,” notes Joyce, “in the spirit of rock and roll. As you said, there was no preparation, there was no planning.” How fortunate that the kids (and their parents) are so accommodating. Consider C.J., thoughtful and willing to wonder about his future on camera. While his parents, interviewed together, do their own wondering at Green’s methods, they also see that their 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.

Will, according to editor Fenton, is “all about” making viewers feel uncomfortable. Just so, Rock School positions him as an object of sympathy and laughter, sometimes at the same time. A Philadelphia Inquirer article calls him “the sad Eyore of rock school,” a line that understandably annoys 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.” As Argott and Joyce describe Will in their commentary, it’s clear they are delighted by his strangeness, an attitude that becomes visible in the film. Following the first day of shooting Will, Joyce recalls, Argott came bounding in their apartment, saying, “You’re never gonna believe what I just found!”

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 otherwise warrants, based on his performance for the camera. (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.