New Market Films / A&E

Rock School

Director

Don Argott

premiere

Sundance Film Festival

YEAR

2005

Welcome to the hallowed halls of the Paul Green School of Rock Music, an after-school, Philadelphia institute of rock, where kids ages nine to seventeen learn the how-to's of rock and roll and serve under the tutelage of self-titles "uberlord" and founder of the school, Paul Green.

There's one thing you can say about Paul Green, the extravagantly voluble, relentlessly belligerent, sometimes wearisome center of the nonfiction film Rock School: He doesn't worry about picking on someone not his own size. If anything, to judge from the evidence in Don Argott's alternately hilarious and alarming documentary, Mr. Green's pedagogic style appears predicated on the idea that if you spare the insults, derision and eardrum-piercing assaults, you spoil the child. Then again, perhaps Mr. Green is simply trying to prepare his young charges for the inevitable hearing loss that comes with a life hooked to squealing electric guitars and fully cranked amplifiers.

As Mr. Green eagerly explains in the film, Mr. Green is the founder and director of the Paul Green School of Rock Music. That's P-A-U-L, space, new word, G-R-E-E-N. Founded in Philadelphia, Mr. Green's establishment is essentially a music school with a Ray Davies kink: instead of sawing on violins, massacring classics out of the Suzuki method books, his students (ages 8 to 18) throttle electric guitars, bash drum kits and generally make like pint-size rockers. Forget Vivaldi; here, Ozzy rules, as do Zappa and Zeppelin. Mr. Green, who in the documentary admits that he always wanted to be a rock star, though a rock star circa 1972, does not seem to hold truck with much (maybe any) contemporary music. Hip-hop? Nah. The White Stripes? Nope. Brian May? Totally!

Mr. Green started his first school in 1998, and since then, both he and his establishment have attracted scores of students and quite possibly nearly as many journalists. In the last couple of years, CNN has done stories about the school and its founder, as have periodicals from Oregon to New York (including this paper). Spin Magazine even sent James Iha, formerly of Smashing Pumpkins, to visit Mr. Green and his school. Mr. Iha found that when the students sang the lines "And all the kids at school/ They were wishing they were me that night" in Meat Loaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," the words rang, as he wrote, "so, so true." Mr. Iha does not say how other lines in that same song, including the memorable "Cause we were barely seventeen/ And we were barely dressed," went down with the parents in the audience.

Mr. Argott served as his own cinematographer on the film (using a high-end digital video camera that produces pretty nice results) and perhaps as a consequence creates a comfortable intimacy with his primary subjects, who include a handful of Mr. Green's students. Among the chosen are 9-year-old twins, Asa and Tucker Collins, a singing Quaker named Madi Diaz-Svalgard (whom Mr. Green unkindly belittles for having the bad taste to like Sheryl Crow) and a mind-blowing 12-year-old guitar prodigy, C. J. Tywoniak, who summons up "Black Magic Woman" with Santana seriousness. The kids, seen in talking-head interviews and in situ (hanging out, practicing, practicing, practicing), are generally plucky and sometimes a bit heartbreaking, partly because there is something bleak, in a JonBenet Ramsey sort of way, about kids angling for stardom.

Stardom may not be the main focus of Mr. Green's fast-growing enterprise (there are now nine schools, including some that just license the name). Still, watching this camera-hungry dynamo and overgrown adolescent - who is in his early 30's - hector his students for almost 93 minutes straight, then take one bow after another at the end of one of their concerts (at a Zappa festival in Germany), it's hard not to think that you're either watching the ultimate stage mother and father rolled into one or a seriously, perhaps unhealthily, frustrated artist. Mr. Argott does not appear to have intentionally laid any traps for Mr. Green, but the dude blunders into them anyway. Remarkably, he even makesJack Black - who played a music teacher very much like Mr. Green in the Richard Linklater fictional film School of Rock - look positively unplugged.

 Manohla Dargis, THE NEW YORK TIMES