Rock School: Dan Argot’s Provocative Documentary

Not to be confused with “School of Rock,” Richard Linklater’s similarly themed fictional hit, “Rock School,” Dan Argot’s provocative documentary probes some of the most significant issues of arts education, such as the “proper” relationship between teachers and students, the “right” methods used to cultivate talent among young children, the fine line between encouragement and abuse, the ambiguity of teachers who are not very good artists themselves.

Influenced by the mass media, at some point in their lives, many kids dream of becoming rock stars. They want to feel the roar of the crowd; to bask in the adoration of fans; experience the adventures of touring. Indeed, on the surface, “Rock School” is a celebration of youthful promise and steadfast dreams, but it’s actually a most serious meditation on the nature of talent and instruction. Though dealing with one specific art form, rock n’ roll music, and though centering on children, the docu bears relevance and strong implications for arts education in general.

First-time documentarian Argott traces the ups-and-downs of the Paul Green School of Rock Music, a unique institution founded in Philadelphia in 1999, dedicated to teaching children, age 9 through 17. He examines the ins-and-outs of rock and roll, the thunderous rock and roll of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, Carlos Santana, Frank Zappa. Following an entire season of classes, the film dissects Paul, the School’s founder, director, and self-proclaimed “berlord” as a complex and contradictory character. Dressed in shorts, t-shirt, and sneakers, Paul comes off like the leader of an overgrown garage band rather than a schoolmaster.

Who is Paul Green, who left home at sixteen and put himself through an Ivy League University Equal parts musician, psychologist, and basketball coach, he is an indefatigable teacher, who’s in turn supportive and verbally abusive, loving and domineering, patient and exasperating. Since he himself is a guitarist, there’s potential conflict and tension: If Paul the music teacher succeeds, his students might become better musicians than he is, and “Paul the guitarist may not be happy about that,” as he acknowledges.

Unlike Hollywood films about teachers, “Rock School” doesn’t glamorize Paul as a selfless, idealistic teacher. In fact, Paul’s thorny relationship with his students is the docu’s most intriguing subject. A whirling dervish of manic energy, Paul is at once sensitive and verbally abusive, generous-spirited and mercilessly critical. Despite his tantrum-filled teaching style, Paul’s commitment to cultivate his students’ music skills is not in doubt.

The sight of nine-year-olds performing Black Sabbath songs outfitted in full heavy metal regalia is, of course, charming. But far from being cute, “Rock School” goes deeper, posing tough questions about the nature of prodigal talent. It’s to Argott’s credit that he raises but doesn’t offer facile answers to questions over which psychologists and educators have been debating for decades. Is Paul fostering his students’ gifts or inhibiting them Is he living vicariously through his students or using the school to fulfill the rock and roll dream of suspended adolescence Some viewers will think Paul is awesome, others a prick, and still others will not know what to make of Paul.

Like their teacher, most of the kids are eccentric and problematic. Will is a clinically depressed, self-styled intellectual who offhandedly diagnoses his teacher’s “Peter Pan” complex. “A piss-poor musician” in his teacher’s words, Will finds friends, inspiration, and an unlikely role model at the school. At one point, he says, “If it wasn’t for Rock School, Id probably be dead.”

Twins Asa and Tucker are nine year-old who, with the help of their domineering mom, walk the fine line between tranquility and spike-haired, head-banging heavy metal thunder. C.J. is a musical prodigy, who’s introduced in the film playing a flawless version of Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” This future guitarist overcomes a disability to play at advanced levels. A practicing Quaker, Madi can only seem to butt heads with Paul over her choice of music, which leans toward pop, like Sheryl Crow. Madi, whose father teaches keyboards at the school, struggles with her musical and spiritual identity.

Several music groups enrich the docu. The Friendly Gangstas are a Quaker rap outfit that posits hymnals to hip-hop beats. The indomitable crew is led by fresh-scrubbed Funk Master Friendly. One of Frank Zappa’s original musicians, Murphy-Brock performed saxophone, flute, and vocals on many of the prog-rock master’s finest recordings.

Using cinma vrit style to create an intimate portrait of this one-of-a-kind
instructor and his aspiring students, “Rock School” reaches its climax in Bad
Doberon, East Germany, where the School of Rock Music honor roll is invited to perform the music of Frank Zappa. This special festival dedicated to the prog-rocker’s oeuvre features Zappa legends, such as Ike Willis and Napoleon Murphy-Brock. The kids prove they can rock with the very best of them. But the process is troubled and full of thorns. “Youre not loud enough! Youre not playing loud enough! Im not your f*cking roadie!” Says Paul to a student.

“I was just enamored with the subject,” says Argott about his decision to make a feature documentary about Paul Green. “The minute we walked in the door to see the first show, there was this 12-year-old playing stuff he just shouldn’t be able to play. And I said, Sign me up.’ We met with Paul the next day and were shooting a day or two later.”

Argott was concerned whether Paul, known for his volatile style, would be open enough to expose unflattering sides of himself and his school. Paul offered Argott no-holds barred access to all aspects of the school. Over the course of nine months, Argott and his camera became a staple around the school. Working with a small, lightweight Panasonic DVX100 24P camera, Argott was able to be a relatively unobtrusive presence; the equipment was ideal for navigating the school’s long hallways and tight rehearsal spaces.

There were approximately 120 students enrolled in the school when filming
began. Argott centered on kids who were at various levels of musicianship, and went on to serve a different purpose in the story. Madi comes from a different background from Paul, and has this sweet folksy thing going on. Will is struggling to fit in and find a home; he’s a typical teenage misfit. C.J. is the guitar protg, and the question with him is whether Paul is nurturing or hurting that. These are powerful personalities, and Paul is the fiddler who knows how to play them all.

One of the film’s subtexts is that Green teaches music that some would consider
long out of fashion. Sticking to his heavy metal and prog-rock guns, he introduces them to the most intricate orchestral rock and roll ever created. Paul’s teaching philosophy is to go back to the basics.

Some may find irony in the very establishment of a School of Rock. The whole notion of institutionalizing the music might be perceived as anathema to the classic rock and roll virtues of rebelliousness and profligacy. Nonetheless, technically, the music Paul teaches is more demanding than most popular music today. Zeppelin, Zappa, Santana represent serious music. “If you can play Zappa, you can play anything.”

Paul walks the line of angel and devil, the effusive, obsessive, volatile center of the School of Rock. A follow-up study may show whether he’s damaging the kids or offering them breakthroughs. He genuinely cares for them, but he knows enough about kids’ psychology to push their buttons and get what he wants out of them. Green can also be stunningly cruel, as when he talks of Will: “He likes playing the 16-year-old mopey intellectual, but that’s a role for a 1980s movie.” Or, when he openly mocks Madi’s religion in front of the other students.

In perhaps the film’s most revelatory moment, Paul makes a stunning
admission about Paul the guitarist versus Paul the teacher. If Paul the music teacher succeeds, his students will eclipse him, becoming better musicians than he is, “and Paul the guitarist isn’t happy about that.”

In one sense, Paul is a failed musician who didn’t make it. But the school also offers him a way to do what he always wanted to do, where he’s in control. And despite Paul’s abrasiveness and demanding perfectionism, it’s disarming to discover that he sought out Will to join the School of Rock, fully aware that the student is “a piss-poor musician.”

The film suggests that, if it’s true that adults spend their lives carrying their adolescent wounds with them, then the psychic landscape of Green’s own adolescence was likely spent somewhere between Will’s and C.J.s—that is, bouncing between the admiration that comes with being a musical prodigy and being an outsider from a broken home.

Argott is conscious of striking a balance in the way he presents Paul. After showing him screaming at a kid, he balances that with a scene of him complimenting them, or a scene with his family or of Paul deprecating himself.

Unlike the directors of Hoop Dreams or the 7-Up films, Argott didn’t spend years with the kids and thus is unable to trace their improving musicianship.
But the film benefits from the invitation for the School to go to Germany, which wasn’t planned.

Rock School derives some of its richness from the scenes that take place away from the rehearsal and performance spaces. The film isn’t all about getting the kids to the Zappa festival in Germany.

Argott shows a good deal of the children’s home lives to try to balance out who they are outside of the school, and what theyre bringing of themselves from the outside world. There are scenes of a mother with washed out dreams of rock and roll glory patiently spraying her son’s hair into switchblade-sharp spikes; Madi performing hymnal inspired rap songs with The Friendly Gangstas at a Quaker revival meeting; tender and deadpan funny scenes between Will and his one-handed mom.

Argott is rigorous about respecting the physical integrity of his musicians. As viewers, we are spatially grounded, we know where the performers are in relation to each other, who’s playing what. There are no MTV-style subliminal cuts, no freestyle editing, and musicianship is prized above sizzle and flash.