Produced by Sheena M. Joyce, Don Argott
As themselves: Paul Green, C.J. Tywoniak, Will O’Connor, Asa Collins, Tucker Collins, Madi Diaz-Svalgard, The Friendly Gangstas, Napoleon Murphy-Brock.
He’s 12 years old and he’s gonna be a rock god, but at the moment he’s just playing a throbbing version of Santana’s Black Magic Woman on guitar as though born to it. Without the raw, thrilling edge of Santana, he’s still awesomely skilful. He’s C.J. Tywoniak. Everyone calls him CJ. At a performance ‘tribute to the rock gods’ given by Paul Green’s Rock School in Philadelphia, he’s just one of the kids on stage behind mics, guitars, keyboards, drums and other instruments.
So starts this documentary on the Rock School. The school was started by volatile former guitar player Green in 1999 as Saturday get-togethers with kids to play music. It soon evolved into its current incarnation, an after-school music development programme for nine to 17 year-olds that concentrates on rock music. In this doco specifically, they study and learn to play the sophisticated and complicated rock music of Frank Zappa, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Carlos Santana. Rapid-talking Green, who nominates himself as a “really good teacher - some people can play all day, I can teach all day”, talks about how awful the kids were in the earliest stages, when they were just learning scales. He claims, and seems to prove, that breaking down and learning to play the difficult songs of, say, Frank Zappa, teaches them more about music than scales can. He makes a point of never saying they can’t play this music “just because they’re kids”. The result is, as one parent/teacher says, “Green gets things out of these kids that I can’t see.”
CJ is not the only talented kid at the Rock School, but he is probably the most talented for his age. Green comments that CJ makes it hard for everyone else. While Green’s dream is “to have some music magazine trace a whole lot of great musicians back to me; to start a new movement of significant music”, CJ want “to be in bands, writing songs, making millions.” He wants to be a legend and he’s hardworking and soft-spoken, a perfectionist. His parents say the guitar is his life and that he’s wanted to be a rock star since his earliest years. Green, who makes a habit of yelling abusively at kids to motivate them any way he can, does not need to yell at CJ.
We meet nine-year-old twins Asa and Tucker Collins, learning to play drums and guitar respectively, who want to be musicians and go on tour and pay for “college and stuff”. Then there’s 16 year-old Madi, a Quaker who arrived at the school playing Sheryl Crow – to Green’s simultaneous amazement and disgust, and soon to hers – and by the end of the filming, nine months later, she is playing Zappa at a festival in Germany. She herself never believed she could play the riffs she plays now.
It’s a good range of abilities and personalities, chosen by Green and the filmmakers for that purpose, to illustrate what the Rock School is about. Among these talented, hardworking and motivated students is Will O’Connor. He’s not a good musician and is not motivated to work. He’s an articulate, melancholic ruminator in the Harvey Pekar mould, who considers himself a social misfit. When he parts company with Green during the course of the year he mentions that it is a “lovable quirk that Paul’s mentally disturbed”. He also states baldly that without Rock School he’d probably be dead, and that he’s pleased he at least has made some friends. Green’s treatment of Will appears harsh at times, born of the frustration a teacher has with a student who doesn’t apply himself. At the same time he’s knowingly calling Will’s bluff, to be more than he sees himself to be, to go beyond his perceived limitations. Will resists. Green accepts that Rock School is not where he should be.
With all Green’s rampant swearing and tantrums at the kids there is also his imperious cry, “I want to give you the gift of rock!” There’s an underlying feeling that he is demanding from them in return something beyond what they might consider possible – and the belief that this is the very nature of rock music. As in the hugely successful, fictional Jack Black vehicle School of Rock (2003), rock music is seen as intrinsically rebellious, uncontained and revolutionary. By his love and appreciation of both the music and the kids, Paul Green is steeping these kids in music that comes from this place. He also demands discipline, but whether they are talented musically or not, work hard or not, the documentary seems to suggest that they will go beyond what they might have achieved by more traditional methods and with more traditional material.
As for Green’s methods, he teaches according to his nature, which is explosive, demanding, impatient and frequently invalidating. That he also appears to be inspired, unfailingly enthusiastic and energetic, totally committed to the betterment of these kids is not enough for some critics who angrily condemn him as abusive. It could be said regarding Paul Green and his students, that if they can survive their teacher’s deficiencies, their next lesson is to surpass his particular genius.
The documentary shifts swiftly between Paul at the school, shouting, swearing, cajoling and also praising the kids in the unconventional teacher role he favours, and at home with his wife Lisa and their new baby. Deceptively normal, this baby is bored by the classical music supposed to increase intelligence, and instead grooves to Frank Zappa’s music. Well, that figures.
We see Madi with the bizarre Friendly Gangstas - a group of Quaker teens rapping the words of hymns. The camera also follows Will home, to awkwardly intense moments with his single mother. Twins Asa and Tucker are made up and spikily mohawked for a Black Sabbath concert by their mom at home. Apparently with little awareness of the import of her confession, she says happily that she always wanted to be a rock star, so now she gets to do it through her kids.
The crowning culmination of both the year and the documentary is an invitation to perform at the Zappanale in Bad Doberon, East Germany, where tribute Zappa bands gather to play and listen. While the filming was intimate and obviously cramped within the school in the cinéma vérité fashion, now it’s more like performance cinematography, spotlit and backlit, showcasing the musicianship and panning over the appreciative audience. Zappa band member Napoleon Murphy-Brock is apparently wildly excited to be playing with the kids, even though they look somewhat wooden, and in turn pays them tribute with a face-splitting grin, “It doesn’t get any better than this!” The doco ends defiantly with a rendition of Alice Cooper’s School’s Out, performed with a somewhat stunned-looking Alice Cooper himself, and notwithstanding some screaming flat notes from the exuberant Asa and Tucker. Refreshing and authentic, Rock School paints a picture of an extraordinary opportunity for some committed kids to achieve and live their dream.
© Avril Carruthers 2nd July 2005