Wednesday, May 27, 2015

'The Choir' (2015) directed by François Girard

Truly, the world was crying out for a PG-rated Whiplash. The Choir (aka Boychoir) is a tranquilliser pill with a slick and sugary coating that follows genre beats with slavish adherence and, appropriately for a film about a choir, ultimately settling for vanishing unseen into the cinematic crowd.

Working the classical a rags to riches template, our hero is tousled-hair moppet Stet (Garrett Wareing). He's literally a kid from the wrong side of the tracks - trains run right past his house. Stet is a troubled kid in that Hollywood sort of way, getting into fights at school and caring for his unconscious alcoholic mother. She's perfunctorily dispatched in a car crash about five minutes in, and Stet falls into the care of his father (Josh Lucas).

Unfortunately for Stet, it turns out he's the secret product of a one-night stand and his father absolutely does not want his 'real' family discovering his existence. So, in an unlikely twist, he's dispatched to the megaposh 'Boychoir School'. Stet has oodles of raw vocal talent, but is way behind the other children. But, under the tutelage of perfectionist Carvelle (Dustin Hoffman), snippy British teacher Drake (Eddie Izzard) and ex-student Wooly (Kevin McHale), there's a chance, a superslim chance, that just maybe, he could become the best damn choirboy they've ever seen.

The problem with The Choir isn't one of construction and technique. By and large this is a decent looking film, the school itself is an attractive location and David Franco's cinematography makes a point of finding the most interesting framing, backgrounds and shot set-ups. 

I can't pick any bones with regard to the performances either. Garrett Wearing is obviously an actor to watch, brimming over with an extremely River Phoenix-esque inner tension and making the transformation from bad kid to boy angel broadly believable. Hoffman and Bates both perform precisely to spec: both effortlessly good, though neither remotely stretching themselves. Izzard also impresses, managing to find something interesting to do in practically every line (although his close-eyes-wave-hands-in-the-air musical appreciation schtick gets a bit old by the end).

Neither does it trip up on the musical front. If you're really into lots of prepubescent boys singing in absurdly high-pitched voices, The Choir more than has you covered. Even if that doesn't float your boat you can't deny the film sounds great, particularly the moments when Carvelle deconstructs the choir and shows the audience how everything fits together.

Sadly, the real crimes here are ones of extraordinarily limited ambition. From the moment Stet arrives at the school you can tell precisely where all this is going, right down to individual character beats. You might assume that a film that telegraphs what's going to happen so baldly might make a surprise swerve in the final act - no such luck. Like a freight train juddering down the tracks, The Choir is going to end up at it's intended destination right on time with a minimum of fuss.

Knackered plot device after knackered plot device is deployed: a half-assed rivalry with a posh kid, the stern teacher with a heart of gold, a training montage, the aversion of last minute disaster and so on. The effect on the audience is one of mild boredom, not helped by a script that assumes the audience are morons. "This is really hard music!" exclaims a moppet while looking at the morass of notes Stet must wring from his throat. Yeah, no shit kid, we can see that.

The Choir is even more disappointing given that this is directed by François Girard, whose daringly structured Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould is one of my benchmarks of cinema about music . There, Girard was at pains to emphasise that musical virtuosity couldn't be adequately captured using traditional cinematic forms - a lesson he appears to have forgotten in churning out this sentimental doggerel.

Most obviously, the film suffers in comparison to last year's Whiplash, which tells broadly the same story but far, far, far more interestingly. Hoffman's Carvelle isn't fit to lick Simmons' Fletcher's boots, despite both being cut from the same mold and professing the same philosophy. Whiplash feels like you're drinking a triple espresso - The Choir feels like you're drinking lukewarm, unpleasantly milky tea.

Probably destined to be forgotten, The Choir could perhaps make a footnote in history as a promising role for its child star. Whatever 'it' is, Garrett Wearing has it, and his performance elevates what could have been teeth-grindingly crappy into mere safe, fuzzy mediocrity. That's not a huge improvement, but hey, I suppose it could have been worse.


The Choir is released 10 July 2015.

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