The short-fused motormouth who runs the Paul Green School of Rock Music, an after-school program for nine-to-17-year-olds in Philadelphia, has claimed, not unreasonably, to be the inspiration for Jack Black’s character in School of Rock. But where Richard Linklater’s movie approached its central incongruity—the idea that anti-establishment rock can and should be schooled—with a breezy mix of ironic farce and fuck-the-Man feelgoodism, Paul Green, the frustrated musician and self-proclaimed “really good teacher” at the center of this documentary, embraces the same philosophy with grim, cranky resolve. Students like Madi, a Quaker folkie, and Will, the resident depressive, attest that rock school is a misfit sanctuary and that Green’s manic tantrums serve a motivational purpose. In any case, as Will deadpans, “It’s a lovable quirk that he’s mentally disturbed.”
But with his Hannibal Lecter impersonations, Vietnam P.O.W. re-enactments, and borderline abusive teasing, Green tends to be more actively unpleasant than amusing. He almost gets misty-eyed envisioning a 2007 issue of Rolling Stone: “Where did all these bands come from? All of a sudden they start tracing stuff back to me.” Given that Green’s curriculum is even more ossified than his fictional counterpart’s, this immodest forecast assumes the resurgent popularity of Frank Zappa-style art-prog. There’s plenty of talent on display—12-year-old guitar prodigy CJ kills every time he’s on—but as the kids dutifully make the pilgrimage to Germany’s tribute-band Zappanale, it’s depressingly clear whose dreams they’re acting out. (Is it really fair to be force-feeding drug music to listeners who aren’t, um, properly equipped to enjoy it?) Don Argott’s lively documentary, ostensibly a paean to alternative pedagogy, extends its subject a long leash, and he in turn does his damnedest to sabotage the project. Rock School ends up being a movie about just how little fun rock ‘n’ roll can be.