Been There, Done That Better: Two Genre-Switching Flicks

Paul Green, right, with young C.J. in the semi-flat documentary
Paul Green, right, with young C.J. in the semi-flat documentary "Rock School." (By Don Argott)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 3, 2005

This week marks a telling convergence in movie theaters: the opening of a documentary that bears more than a passing resemblance to a wildly appealing fiction film, and the opening of a fiction film based on a fabulous documentary.

Considering the widening artistic and commercial scope of nonfiction movies, it stands to reason that Hollywood would want to take another bite of those apples with a glossed-up, fictionalized version. And what more promising prospect for a first-time documentary filmmaker than to make the real-life analogue of one of those glossy fictionalized star vehicles?

But if the documentary "Rock School" and the fiction film "Lords of Dogtown" are any indication, the theory that what works as nonfiction will work as fiction -- and vice versa -- may need a little tweaking.

"Rock School" is Don Argott's cinema verite portrait of Paul Green, a guitar player who opened an after-school program for Philadelphia youngsters eager to perfect their arpeggios and heavy metal scowls. Jack Black fans will surely be reminded of one of his beloved characters, Dewey Finn, the manic, sweetly subversive teacher in Richard Linklater's wonderful 2003 comedy "The School of Rock." (That movie and Christopher Guest's "A Mighty Wind" are the two titles I most regret not putting on my Top 10 list that year.)

But whereas Black's lovable trickster -- a lethally funny combination of Mephistopheles, the Cat in the Hat and Ozzy Osbourne -- was an appealing evangelist for rock-and-roll excess and the sheer fun of shameless posing, Green is a grim martinet, given to chair-throwing tantrums and fits of temper that look suspiciously choreographed for the camera. What's more, until the last 20 minutes or so of "Rock School," the actual playing, while often startlingly good, is kind of boring.

In actuality, Linklater's movie wasn't based on Green's eponymous School of Rock Music; Argott himself learned of Green before "The School of Rock" came out. And it's understandable why Argott, a first-time filmmaker, was attracted to his subject. Following a group of students over a few months as they practice, mess up, fight with Green and finally give their Big Performance suggests a virtually irresistible narrative arc. Argott wisely focuses on students who are either prodigiously gifted -- such as a 12-year-old guitar whiz named C.J. and a Sheryl Crow acolyte named Madi-- or compulsively camera-friendly, like 9-year-old twins Asa and Tucker Collins, a brother and sister whose stage mother veers more toward AC/DC than "Annie." The most compelling student is a depressive, bespectacled teenager named Will O'Connor. "If it weren't for Rock School . . . I'd probably be dead," he says at one point. "I'm barely alive now."

Will young Mr. O'Connor shock everyone and actually play a note on the bass? Will the Collins twins nail their big Black Sabbath solos? Will C.J. overcome surgery on his leg to perform a note-for-note Carlos Santana riff on "Black Magic Woman"? You'd be surprised at how little you care by the time Green, whose speeches to the camera often teeter on the brink of Spinal Tappish self-importance, kicks a wall or upbraids a student for the umpteenth time.

For me, "Rock School" only really got started once Green's master class, which in his wisdom he's been immersing in Frank Zappa, gears up to play Zappa's enormously difficult and intricate "Inca Roads" at an annual festival in Germany. Their climactic performance may well be thrilling, but do yourself a favor and rent Linklater's "School of Rock" for pure, kick-out-the-jams fun.

One movie that did make it on to my Top 10 list, in 2001, was "Dogtown and Z-Boys," Stacy Peralta's brilliant documentary about the Zephyr team, a group of young skateboarders who in the 1970s burst out of the "seaside slum" of Venice, Calif., to revolutionize the sport. With its edgy visual style, classic '70s-rock soundtrack, and former Z-Boy Peralta's own intimate knowledge of the subject, "Dogtown and Z-Boys" was one of those rare films, fiction or nonfiction, that transcended their putative subjects to address something much bigger, in this case the uniquely American dreams of freedom, unfettered self-invention and the vagrant, creative genius of the outlaw.

That's the lightning Peralta and director Catherine Hardwicke ("Thirteen") have tried to bottle in "Lords of Dogtown," which has all the energy and spontaneity of a bowl of waxed fruit. If watching "Dogtown and Z-Boys" was tantamount to witnessing history itself, watching "Lords of Dogtown," which Peralta wrote, feels more like watching a stiff, meticulously choreographed reenactment.

Admittedly, Hardwicke has enlisted a spot-on cast of young actors to portray Peralta and his fellow Z-Boy stars, Tony Alva and Jay Adams. John Robinson ("Elephant"), Victor Rasuk ("Raising Victor Vargas") and Emile Hirsch ("Imaginary Heroes") play Peralta, Alva and Adams, respectively, and each bears an eerie physical resemblance to his character. It's more difficult to recognize the Z-Boys' patron and self-described Captain Hook, Skip Engblom, in Heath Ledger's clench-jawed, perpetually drunk loser. Engblom, who was one of several surprisingly erudite commentators in "Dogtown and Z-Boys," here is portrayed as if he's been up for days doing coke and swigging booze; that might jibe with the man who squandered a chance to succeed alongside his young proteges, but it doesn't quite do justice to what he achieved.

Hardwicke, a former production designer, does her best to approximate the ragged visual style of "Dogtown and Z-Boys," using lots of close-ups and hand-held camera movements; it only makes "Lords of Dogtown" seem all the more inauthentic, the aesthetic equivalent of slumming. Worse is Peralta's script, which favors such Andy Hardyesque lines as, "They're urethane, it's made of oil," and "We can't bail on Skip, man, he's family."

Part of what made the Z-Boy movement great was the fact that it had two tireless historians, the designer Craig Stecyk and the photographer Glen Freidman. Since they obsessively recorded every moment of the Z-Boys' rise to skateboard stardom -- from surfing off Venice's fabled Pacific Ocean Park pier to sticking urethane wheels on their skateboards to perfect their moves in Los Angeles's drought-drained swimming pools -- Peralta's documentary gave viewers the feeling that they were watching something being born before their very eyes. In "Lords of Dogtown," the gloriously random factors that converged to create the Z-Boy phenomenon are all conveyed through awkward, expository bits of dialogue, with the result being that what should have been the "Boogie Nights" of skateboarding is instead its "Knute Rockne, All American." In the argot of the Z-Boys themselves, it is so not punk rock.

Rock School (93 minutes, at Landmark's Bethesda Row, Cineplex Odeon Dupont and Cineplex Odeon Shirlington) is rated R for profanity.

Lords of Dogtown (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for drug and alcohol content, sexuality, violence, brief profanity and reckless behavior, all involving teens.

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