Class Act

Public schools are cutting back on arts education to teach their students stupid things like how to read. That's a mistake according to the activist documentary presented by activist documentarian Morgan Spurlock. We shouldn't care if Johnny can read, as long as he has a chance to sing. Based on the promotional materials and the packaging, Class Act looks like a pretty standard documentary tribute to a high school drama teacher who hung around long enough to have four or five really famous students. But that wasn’t enough for the filmmakers, who clearly wanted to make their movie more “important.” Instead they ruin what could have been an uplifting story by making an infomercial. Not about the teacher, who is pretty interesting and deserves to have more of the documentary focused on him, but about how arts education deserves more money.

Jay W. Jensen, the focus of the narrative, taught drama for more than 30 years at Miami Beach Senior High School. In that time a few students went on to big-time success in the entertainment industry. Actor Andy Garcia, sportscaster Roy Firestone, director Brett Ratner, songwriter Desmond Child, and others all either took his classes or took part in his drama and musical productions while in school. He clearly had an impact on them and they speak in the movie in a very truthful and heartfelt way about his love for his students and what they learned from him. Other minor Hollywood players are also interviewed along with doctors, lawyers, rabbis, teachers and businessmen who passed through the high school and pointed to Jensen as a strong force in their life.

The overview of Jensen’s career and the reminisces of his students make-up about half the 90 minute running time. Director/writer Sara Sackner and producer/writer Heather Winters, both Jensen’s former students, then interview activists, educators, and researches about the state of arts education in today’s public school system. Everyone is pretty universal in their opinion that it sucks. Everyone also puts forth that a good arts program is an important part of well rounded education. Everyone states it over, and over, and over again, not really varying the pitch or adding anything new. The camera is pointed at a National Education Association official, a privately funded art school executive director, a professional liberal whiner, or some other talking head and they say some version of “arts are very important, give them more money!.” Just stating the obvious until you wish they would shut up and get the camera back to Jensen.

Jensen is noted as being “the teacher to the stars.” Frankly, anyone with 30 years in the arts at a big city high school probably has as many famous students as he does. That’s not what makes him interesting. It’s his attitude towards life, his willingness to give his time (and money) for the arts and his students, and his quirky personality that make his half of a documentary worth watching. Just keep your finger on the fast forward button for the 45 minutes when the do-gooders remind you that the world is going to hell in a hand basket unless you fund Johnny’s drawing class. It’s not clear that this movie ever got a theatrical release beyond the festival circuit. The money available to put together extras was obviously limited. The movie doesn’t include a commentary, but that doesn’t really matter as much with a straight forward talking head documentary like this. The quality of the picture and the sound are good, in keeping with a set up where they primarily just set up a camera pointed at someone who then starts talking.

There are five extras total. Four are deleted material from the interviews with Andy Garcia, Roy Firestone, Brett Ratner, and Desmond Child shown in the documentary. Since the discussions by and about Jensen are the most interesting thing about this disc, it is nice to have more information about him. Each set of deleted material is about five to ten minutes long.

The final extra is an interview with Sara Sackner and Heather Winters. It is shot in the most basic way imaginable. The quality is similar to those YouTube monologues you often see. Sacker and Winters are both open, happy and well spoken and clearly enjoyed putting together this documentary about their favorite teacher. They also reveal some interesting tidbits including the original mission of the documentary. It was more to cover Jensen’s philanthropy on a low salary rather than a crusade for public school arts education funding. They should have stuck with that plan.

The only other “extra” is a two minute introduction to the movie by executive producer Morgan Spurlock. It is just another plea for money for arts education and seems to cover Spurlock’s entire involvement with the project. Although his name is above the title as “Morgan Spurlock Presents: Class Act” he didn’t take part in the planning or filming of the project. Don’t let your enjoyment of Super Size Me fool you into thinking this is any kind of documentary follow-up for him.

If you are part of the choir that blames the lack of arts education in the public school system on the No Child Left Behind Act then you will enjoy this well made documentary. The lack of any kind of balance won’t be much of a problem and, as stated, Jensen is a very interesting subject. The one note harping will probably turn others off, though, and Jensen is a subject who deserves a focus all his own.