Even the dark side to Richard Linklater's School Of Rock is infectiously funny: The film's protagonist, a burnout guitarist-turned-substitute-teacher played by Jack Black, isn't much for democracy when it comes to music. For him, rock peaked with Led Zeppelin and expired for good more than two decades ago, but arrested adolescent that he is, Black tries to carry the torch and force his vision on the fresh, uncorrupted souls of elementary-school music savants. ("I just need minds for molding," he says in a slightly diabolical tone.) Black's real-world equivalent is Paul Green, the charismatic founder of Philadelphia's Paul Green School Of Rock, and throughout the entertaining documentary Rock School, Green imposes the same tyranny of taste on his impressionable students. Though Green clearly has a passion and a talent for teaching young people, there's a niggling sense that he's realizing his dreams through them, not the other way around, and it steers this otherwise lighthearted portrait away from mere boosterism.
Housed in a nondescript office building with shambling interiors that suggest a college radio station or an unkempt dorm room, the Paul Green School Of Rock enrolls 120 students with varying levels of ability. The beginners are generally set to work on the three-chord simplicity of Black Sabbath, while the advanced students tackle Frank Zappa's knottiest compositions in preparation for a Zappa festival (the Zappanale) in Bad Doberan, Germany. Director Don Argott selects a few colorful subjects from the pool of young prodigies, including a Quaker folkie who used to be part of a wholesome rap group called The Friendly Gangstas, a mopey bass player with suicidal tendencies, and a pint-sized guitar god who's already ready for primetime. The school year leads to a triumphant set at the Zappanale, where Green's star students jam with former Zappa band member Napoleon Murphy Brock.
Green doesn't bother with the niceties and assurances of other adults teaching children: Peppering his speech with profanity and shout-outs to Satan ("668, neighbor of the beast!" goes a pre-show chant), he manages his pupils through a shrewd balance of inspiration and belligerence, but he knows well how to manipulate them into realizing their potential. Rock School initially seems like a cutesy documentary along the lines of Mad Hot Ballroom, but Green's edgy personality keeps it from devolving into a typical lighter-side-of-the-news piece. He cares about helping these misfits bring some cohesion to their young lives, but he also cares about his own legacy, and some might argue that he's creating a bunch of little Paul Greens instead of allowing his students space for their own self-realization. The kids are great, but when they graduate from Rock School, will the valedictorian be the next Jimmy Page, or the technically proficient lead guitarist of a Led Zeppelin cover band?