As adorable as Jack Black’s fictional portrayal was, there is something inherently disturbing about the idea of a real life School of Rock for 9-17-year-olds. Of course there is the problem of the music itself, loud, profane, and rude, promoting drug use and misogyny.
And then there is the problem of the people who love the music — in this case, Paul Green, who runs the school, who is loud, profane, and rude.
But the fundamental problem is that rock music is about anarchy and insolence and rebellion and shock and volcanic uncontainability, and, as in the name of a Red Hot Chili Peppers album, “Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik” (sic), so the idea of sitting down with a bunch of kids and using rock to teach them rules and discipline is almost impossible to imagine.
Children are supposed to be learning songs about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, not paranoia and devil worship. They have to develop their belief system fully before they can reject it as teenagers. If ten-year-olds with Mohawked hair shriek Ozzy Osborne songs, what will they do to rebel, sing Guy Lombardo?
So, can kids survive real rock? And can rock, which has survived even having its anthems turned into elevator music and advertising jingles, survive this? The problem inherent in this question is illustrated by the fact that this movie about a teacher of 9 to 17-year-olds is rated R as unsuitable for 9 to 17-year-olds due to near-constant use of the f-word by the teacher.
Paul Green wanted to be a guitar god. Sometimes he still does. But he realized when he saw the film Almost Famous that he wants to be a rock star in 1972, not in 2005. He knows he has to “reconcile Paul the guitar player with Paul the guitar teacher” and that means being willing to teach the kids to be better than he is. He loves to teach and has a gift for “big ideas I was able to express in concrete terms so that kids could understand.” So he established an after-school program teaching kids to play rock and roll.
His standards are as exacting as any symphonic tyrant. It’s “not ‘come look at kids play music’ — it’s ‘come look at kids play music well.'” He insults and bullies the kids; he compares the kids to each other; he threatens to throw them out. The “Suggestion Box” sign is posted over the garbage can. And most of the time, the kids love it.
We see Paul and his students prepare for three big performances — salutes to Black Sabbath and “guitar gods,” and a trip to Germany for a performance at Zappanale, a global gathering of Frank Zappa tribute bands. There are crises — a star performer has an emergency operation, a newspaper story causes controversy. There is pressure — they will be performing not just in front of thousands of Zappa fanatics who know every note of the music but in front of some of the musicians who played with Zappa.
There are mistakes and there are tears. And there are triumphs. There are kids whose souls open up to new feelings and experiences, kids who find a home or a sense of mastery they did not know was possible. And there is a “soccer mom without the soccer” painting a cross (but not a pentagram) on a kid with black fingernail polish and a mohawk, a Quaker rap group called the Friendly Gangstaz, and some face-melting metal music, and a moment of recognition and appreciation that is as moving and tender as any ever put on film.
Parents should know that this movie is serious about hard, loud, and angry rock music and does not tone it down for children. It includes frequent and colorful bad language used in front of and by children and teenagers. While it is unassailably clear to us and to the students that Green loves the kids and loves teaching them, he often speaks to them in very harsh terms, a sort of rock and roll equivalent of a drill sargeant. There is a mention of a drug reference in a song and Paul talks about alliegance to Satan. A student mentions suicide attempts and depression.
Families who see this film should talk about Paul’s teaching style. Is it abusive? Is it demanding? Is it too demanding? Was it a good experience for Madi? For Will?
“Shows are picked for their educational merit and content (e.g. Queen to learn about harmony, punk to develop performance and stage presence, Zappa for a crash course in musicianship. It is never even suggested that these kids shouldn’t be able to learn and play their parts. Thus, if they fail, they fail at aiming at the best. And when they succeed, which is more often than not, they have accomplished something extraordinary.”