‘When It Breaks’ is an education for everyone

Konrad Wert on the road with his son

Konrad Wert on the road with his son

Teacher, musician
and performer
Konrad Wert
sings a powerful song
special needs students

When It Breaks is the story of a man who inspires America to educate her children in the best way possible.

At the beginning of the film, Texas special education teacher and part-time musician Konrad Wert is packing his family into a Winnebago View for a yearlong, coast-to-coast concert tour. Planning to entertain crowds during an extended break from work, the charismatic singer/songwriter hopes to launch a nationwide conversation about kids with special needs along the way.

“You think it’s a normal Friday night,” he says. “But for me, it’s like, ‘I can talk about public education with you.’”



By the end of When it Breaks, according to writer/director Todd Tue, it becomes obvious that Wert’s inspiration to help young people far outweighs any desire for musical fame.

“Konrad is doing this to advocate and inspire and hopefully someday return to his day job as a special education teacher,” says Tue. “His passion absolutely lies in teaching and education.”

ALSO READ: Chicago filmmaker Todd Tue helps Whitney Rose shake it

As a director with a vast number of music films and videos on his reel, Tue had become something of a connoisseur by the first time he saw Konrad play in 2008. Still, he was blown away by the musician’s foot-stomping, guitar-strumming, banjo-plucking, fiddle-stroking one-man-show at Minnesota’s Deep Blues Festival.

Konrad Wert performing in Covington, KY
Konrad Wert performing in Covington, KY

“His live performance was amazing,” Tue recalls. “I had never seen anything like it before.”

Back in those days, Konrad was a full-time teacher who side-hustled as a musician using the pseudonym, Possessed by Paul James, a moniker that combines the names of his father and grandfather.

After the festival, the filmmaker and the musician kept in touch and began to collaborate. While directing a couple of Wert’s music videos, Tue realized that Wert’s dedication to special needs education was strained by a growing frustration with the system.

It reached a breaking point in 2015.

“He had kind of mentioned that he was facing teacher burnout,” Tue remembers. “When I heard that he was going to leave teaching and pursue music, I knew that it was a story worth telling.”

Tue arrived in Texas just in time to film Wert, his wife, and two kids preparing to head out on the road. For the next year, he would meet up with the Werts “about once a month” to record “the pain of being a working musician and the triumph of being a special education advocate.”

“I would travel in the RV with the family for anywhere from four to ten days at a time,” he says. “There was no late-night partying because he had to pack up his gear and drive six hours to the next show.”

Filmmaker Todd Tue
Filmmaker Todd Tue

While catching Konrad shows in places like Texas, California, New York, and Florida, Tue was also learning from the teachers who came to see him.

“We were hearing people talking about a lack of resources and lack of staff, especially in special education,” he says. “We heard that everywhere.”

Although When it Breaks does not provide a simple solution for the nation’s education problems, the film does motivate people “to look out for each other,” and “to use our resources to help those who are in need,” according to Tue.

Along the way, it brings home a long-overdue and strikingly appropriate message.

“As a father of two kids in Chicago Public Schools, what I’m hearing from our teachers across the city is the same exact thing that we heard from teachers across the country,” he says. “In 2018, we saw those huge strikes in all those red states — West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona, Oklahoma — and then there was the LA teachers’ strike in 2019, and now Chicago is pursuing the same goal: our teachers are asking for more, and they totally deserve it.”

‘When It Breaks’ premieres in Chicago at the Logan Theatre on November 29th. For tickets, click on this. Tue and Konrad will conclude the screening with an audience-wide conversation about education that will run until about 7:30 p.m., when Konrad has to depart for an 8 p.m. show at the Beat Kitchen.

   Director: Todd Tue
   Produced by: Milk Products Media Ltd.
   B Cam: Logan Nickloy
   Edited by: Todd Tue and Eryn Walanka
   Post Production Sound: Park Walk Productions
   Sound Supervisor: Chris Batte
   Colorist: Ken Wald
   Funded in part by Lagunitas Brewing Co. and Other World Computing

   Shot mostly on the Canon C100 and Sony FS7
   Edited in Adobe Premiere
   Sound mixed here in Chicago at Park Walk Productions

About Konrad Wert
Konrad Wert was born and raised in the Mennonite church in the small but ethnically diverse town of Immokalee, Florida. Even after breaking from the church, Konrad has held strong to the belief of living a life of service. Since finishing college, he became a teacher often working with children that have profound special needs. He was awarded Teacher of the Year for his district in 2012. But Konrad is also an accomplished musician who performs as Possessed by Paul James. In 2014, he was cited by New York Times’ pop music critic Jon Caramanica for performing one of the year’s top 10 concerts, along with Beyonce & Jay Z. Caramanica wrote of Konrad, “he played religiously intense folk without the religion, in between tales of teaching music to special-education students.”

About Todd Tue
Todd Tue is an accomplished and award-winning cinematographer, editor, and director, Todd founded and runs Milk Products Media. He and Konrad have been collaborators on multiple video projects, since 2012. His goal is to “tell stories that blur the lines of entertainment, art, and activism.” Todd has over 15 years of award-winning and festival-recognized production experience, including documentaries, live concert films, and promotional spots. He currently lives in Chicago where he runs his production company, drinks lots of coffee, and gazes lovingly at his two daughters.

Send your indie updates to Reel Chicago Editor Dan Patton, dan@reelchicago.com.