Judge Katie Herrell discovers that there's an art to promoting arts education.
Our review of Class Act (1992), published May 26th, 2010, is also available.
Prepare for the role of your lifetime.
If Class Act executive producer Morgan Spurlock (of Super Size Me fame) continues to inject consciousness, heart, and relevance into all of the films he attaches his name to, Al Gore may need to watch his Nobel-toting back.
Facts of the Case
With drama teacher extraordinaire Jay W. Jensen as the guide, Class Act explores the declining role of creative arts programs in children's education. This decline is not only portrayed by showcasing the tired instruments and shuttered rooms of former music and drama programs, but by showcasing those who wouldn't be where they are today if it weren't, generally, for the arts, and, specifically, for Jensen.
Morgan Spurlock's only physical presence in this film is during the prologue when he cheesily introduces the film with the aid of his rusty trombone skills. Thankfully, Miami Beach drama dynamo Jay W. Jensen soon takes over the movie and Spurlock moves deftly behind the scenes.
Dressed all in black (in every scene), with a full head of white hair, the 70-ish Jensen is first shown heading off to work as a drama teacher via the city bus. He is an elfish man with a prominent glimmer in his eyes, and it is instantly obvious he loves life, his work, his students, and, most importantly, the arts and education.
As the movie progresses more and more astonishing information about Jensen emerges. But Jensen is a man to be revered from the first scene when he is simply an aging teacher heading off to work.
Jensen is lucky to have a job in his field at all. After decades teaching drama at Miami Beach High, the department was shuttered. This movie has many messages and facets and one of the more prominent themes is the decline of arts programs in public schools due to the federal government's "No Child Left Behind Act."
A slew of educated and eloquent experts are interviewed throughout the film detailing how an emphasis on standardized testing has insidiously chipped away at arts education, despite the federal government's firm denial of such an effect. But this isn't a "political" film.
The viewer is taken to a school bearing the name of John Philip Sousa, the great composer and conductor. There the drama room is used for in-school suspension and rusting drums are stored in a locked closet.
Juxtaposed against the experts and the artless schools are a number of interviews with Jensen's now-famous pupils. It is a testament not only to Jensen but to the film's message that the likes of Andy Garcia, Brett Ratner, Desmond Child, and Roy Firestone offer themselves extensively and openly to the movie.
All of Jensen's former students tower over their diminutive teacher, but they all look like they want to hug him endlessly. And they all share stories of being overlooked or unenthused by school until they meet Jensen and are turned on to the arts.
Besides Jensen's students who go on to work in the arts, the film also profiles less obvious professionals who have been inspired by the arts and by Jensen. There are rabbis and lawyers and government officials, all sparkling when they talk about Jensen's class. Some even break out in song.
The message their presence in the film portrays is another important theme of the film: the arts help kids, people, in many aspects of life outside of dance classes and music lessons. The loss of arts education is the loss of a well-rounded American society says the film.
But back to Jensen. It turns out not only is he a tireless advocate for the overlooked or trouble-making kids whom he inspires to greatness, but he is a raging philanthropist donating nearly $3 million dollars to the University of Miami.
If the best form of leadership is to lead by example, Jay W. Jensen is the best kind of leader. As is this movie. Instead of lamenting endlessly the decline of arts in public education or lambasting the federal government, Class Act juxtaposes loss with gain, pain with pleasure. The movie found a wonderful advocate for the arts and used him, and his ring of successful students, as the icons of what this country stands to lose if arts education continues to deteriorate. It is advocating art through art, and it is a powerful message.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I was looking forward to the special features, because I was so charmed by Jensen and wanted to know more about him, maybe a look at his own attempts at acting or footage of one of his directorial productions. Instead, the special features were devoted to more footage of interviews with Jensen's celebrity students, who were not lacking for screen time during the actual film. The featurette with the director Sara Sackne and producer Heather M. Winters (both former students of Jensen's) was interesting, however, and righted my initial impression that Spurlock was the writer/director.
In 90 minutes I too became smitten with Jay W. Jensen. When I sat down to write this review I was saddened to learn that he passed away in 2007. But he now has a film to his name worthy of his legacy.
Sometimes you don't have to prepare, you just have to let it happen—unless you don't have access to those opportunities in the first place. Then you have to prepare three times as hard.
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