It’s been a tough year for kids who sing and those who like to watch them sing. The TV show, GLEE, came to an end last March. Two months later, the producers of AMERICAN IDOL announced that their show will wrap up after this coming season. Even the elite singing school, the American Boychoir School, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in April.
BOYCHOIR is a fictionalised story set at the National Boychoir Academy. It’s no secret that the NBA is modeled after the ABS. Even the two schools’ touring buses look the same. The film centers around Stet, a troubled and angry 12-year-old boy from Odessa, Texas, who transfers to the school mid-year after his mother dies. His school’s principal (played by Debra Winger) recognises his musical talent and she convinces Stet’s estranged – and apparently rich – father to get him into the private school. Interestingly, like its real counterpart, the NBA is strapped for cash and the new school’s principal (Kathy Bates) willingly accepts Stet’s father’s cheque even though the boy flunks his singing audition and can’t read music.
Life at the academy doesn’t start well for the boy. If not for one music teacher, Wooly, (played by GLEE’s Kevin McHale) championing the cherub, Stet would be completely lost. Carvelle (Dustin Hoffman), the choir master, sees the boy’s potential but has no interest in training him because Stet would rather be anywhere else. Drake (Eddie Izzard), Carvell’s assistant, has his own issues with Stet. He has his own angelic-voiced protégé – Devon – in the performance choir and he has no interest in seeing any change to the status quo. As for Stet’s classmates, they shun him altogether. Only one student, an outcast himself, befriends the boy, teaching him virtually overnight not only how to read music but all the minutiae of music theory.
Wait a second! This is supposed to be a premier school for pre-teen boys that charges in the neighbourhood of US$30,000 a year for tuition, room and board (cheap by Hong Kong standards, I know). What kind of teachers are these? Maybe it’s just me but I would have expected a bit more quality and commitment from Carvelle and Drake. For kids who are supposed to be the vocal equivalent of race horses, all we see is some perfunctory teaching. Where are the interminable warm up scales? Where are the soul-crushing drills? Where are the kids passing out under the heat of the spotlights? Singing is not an extra-curricular activity at this school. It IS the curriculum. And it’s not just the Music Department that is slacking off. In one very brief scene where we see the boys in Phys. Ed. class, their teacher is having them bounce basketballs as if they’ve never seen such things before. Small wonder the school is facing a financial crisis.
As expected, Carvelle and Stat butt heads until the boy realises that he loves singing more than he hates the world. That’s welcome news for Carvelle, who is determined to make his choir as acclaimed as the Vienna Boys’ Choir. When they receive an invitation to sing in New York, Drake writes a piece of new music that requires one of the boys to hit a high D. Who will it be — Stet or Devon?
The big problem with BOYCHOIR is that there isn’t enough tension. There is no comparison to other music school films – both FAME and WHIPLASH come to mind. The National Boychoir Academy comes across as a school that gives out awards to students for good attendance. But just showing up won’t get these kids into performing arts high schools, which is probably where most of these students would want to attend when they graduate from the academy. Had there been more scenes of the teachers pushing their students to achieve greatness, BOYCHOIR would have been an interesting film. Unfortunately, Hoffman sleepwalks through his role, waking up just long enough to deliver some platitude. The same can be said for Bates. Even McHale’s talents are wasted. If you can imagine Artie all grown up and out of his wheelchair, that would be Wooly. No singing or dancing. (He’s apparently a very good dancer too.) The only bright light in the film comes from Debra Winger. Let’s hope she’s making a comeback.
BOYCHOIR is one flat disappointment. With better writing and direction, it could have hit all the right notes.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 25:15.)
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