Saturday, October 14, 2006

Paul Green School of Rock; Albert Cullum School of... (Note to Self: Think of Appropriate Word Play)

Today we watched two documentaries about two very different teachers: Rock School, about the private music classes run by a guy named Paul Green (and on whose work the Richard Linklater movie School of Rock was partly based -- Jack Black played a nicened-up version of Mr. Green); and A Touch of Greatness, about a longtime teacher at a public elementary school in New York named Al Cullum who always had his students putting on performances of Julius Caesar and making films about voting for the world's greatest playwright (Sophocles, Shakespeare, or G.B. Shaw) and things like that. (Mr. Cullum did this starting in the 50s and 60s, decades before Rafe Esquith.)

Mr. Green was quite in-your-face and abrasive (The ♥G♥ called him a bad name) and very much drove his young rockers to perfectionism, often through F-word-fueled insults. In some cases this seemed to work OK, but I bet it'd get old after a while if you were on the receiving end. He reminded me a lot of the stereotype of the intense, win-at-any-cost football coach. (Not the one played by the Denzel Washington type of character either, but the dictator that the Denzellish character's team always beats for a feel-good ending.) How much of that was real, and how much was him putting on a persona for the camera? One of my favorite quotes (not verbatim, but close), as he gave his students a pep talk right before their first big rock performance (Black Sabbath-themed): "Remember, tonight is not about me. Tonight is not about you. Tonight is not even about music. Tonight is all about Satan!" Why didn't I ever have any teachers that said that?!? In any case, he ended up with some pretty awesome young rock musicians, including a bunch that went to Germany to play at a Frank Zappa Festival. Here's a clip of a 12-year-old PGSOR virtuoso named C.J. Tywoniak covering the Van Halen cover of "You Really Got Me":

Mr. Cullum, on the other hand, was more likely to dress up like a Grizzly Bear and chase his students across a giant map of the United States painted on the playground blacktop. (At least, we assume he was more likely to do this -- If he dropped any F-bombs or paeans to Satan on his 6th-graders, they didn't include it in this doc. Maybe it's on the cutting room floor.)

Cullum had the idea of teaching the classics (Shakespeare, Greeks, Romans, et al.) in his elementary school, getting the students to put on performances for the rest of the school and community, and ended up getting a 29-year-old Robert Downey Senior to put some of these on film. CBS took an interest, and gave Mr. Cullum's work some exposure on one of their interview shows. The film is told through cutting in this footage with modern-day footage of some of the former students, now in their 40s and 50s, returning to their old school to visit with their now-retired teacher.

I liked both of these films, because they profiled people who were different, and that always scores points with me.

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