You can probably rattle off the titles of quite a few movies in which the central metaphor is music. Think Mr. Holland's Opus, Brassed Off, Drumline, and Music of the Heart. But if you narrow the scope to flicks about choral singers and choral singing—not so many. The ones we do have, though, have some important things to say about the chorus as a community. Show one of the following for your next choir party!
The Choir As Civilizer
The French film Les Choristes (The Chorus) is set in a school for troubled boys. The new teacher's first task is to bandage the head of the maintenance man, on whom the boys have played a cruel prank. The quarrelsome, thieving, noisy boys are barely held in check by the martinet of a headmaster and his policy of "action-reaction."
Mathieu, the gently humorous new teacher, is a choral director and composer. He holds voice tryouts and teaches the boys to sing parts, stand correctly, breathe, and follow his direction. If it were made in Hollywood, this story would end with happy boys, singing their hearts out, but Les Choristes has one of those slightly sad French endings.
Supposedly based on a true story, Les Choristes made quite a splash when it came out in 2004, garnering two Academy Award nominations. The main theme is a familiar one: sensitive teacher as deliverer. But there's a larger message that singers will understand about the power of music to bring order and civility—and joy—to life.
Humming in the Face of Death
Okay, this is not one of those feel-good films, but there is an amazing back-story here that you may want to learn more about.
Paradise Road (1997) is a harrowing account of an actual women's prison camp on Sumatra during World War II. Glenn Close plays an Englishwoman, graduate of the Royal College of Music. Choral singing becomes the focus of this tense film only after we see how the women were captured when the Japanese sink their ship.
Close's character scribbles on scraps of paper, from memory, orchestral music she has studied, and the prisoners form a wordless vocal ensemble, humming and scatting through Dvorak and Brahms. This chorus is not warm and wonderful, but an act of defiance, and eventually the prisoners are so ill and malnourished they cannot even hum. No one is singing by the end, which brings their release only when Japan surrenders.
Now the back story: some of the members of the vocal orchestra from the Sumatra camp survived, as did about half of the choral compositions. One of the survivors, Antoinette Colign Mayer, escaped with a hand-copied manuscript, but after many years, the highly-treasured artifact was beginning to deteriorate.
Mayer and her sister Helen Colign, who had also survived the Sumatra camp, arranged for the donation of the manuscript to the Music Library of Stanford University. The Library, wanting to add a recorded version of the music to its archives, asked the Peninsula Women's Chorus in Palo Alto, California, directed at the time by Patricia Hennings, to perform selections from the manuscript.
The Chorus gave the first performance of the "vocal orchestra" in 1982, and a year later organized a reunion concert to which they invited all surviving members of the original prison camp chorus from their homes in England, Australia, Indonesia, and The Netherlands. The reunion spurred the making of a documentary, Song of Survival, which highlights rare archival footage, interviews with the survivors, and the performances from the reunion concert.
The soundtrack for the film, Paradise Road: Song of Survival, features the Malle Babbe Women's Chorus, a very fine 50-member female choir of Haarlem in The Netherlands. Some of the vocal orchestral arrangements also are featured on the Peninsula Women's Chorus 1999 recording, Songs of the Spirit.
A Choir to Keep You Warm
The Norwegian film, Cool and Crazy (2001) is supposed to be a genuine documentary about the men's chorus in the Arctic fishing village of Berlevag, Norway. The 30 singers are fishermen and North Sea oil workers—the youngest member in his 30s, the oldest over 90, and nearly all of them smoke.
This is a documentary, so of course there is no tight narrative and no single protagonist; instead the singers speak directly to the camera as they reflect on a wasted youth, take a bath, sit down to dinner, work in the little cafe that the chorus runs, or have yet another smoke. Few of the men are married, and most of the others say they wish they had real relationships with women. Yet, when the chorus takes a trip over the border to sing in Russia, and they have a moment of stardom, they behave like schoolboys.
But you really like this taciturn bunch. They are very honest and open with each other, and seem to understand the harsh, treeless landscape and the freezing-cold sea that roars at the very edge of the village. They take clumsy, but touching care of each other, and especially of the oldest members and the director, whom they lift into the bus and up stairs in his wheelchair.
The performances on the soundtrack are heartfelt, but middling quality, and some individual voices may not be ensemble-material. In a sense, the men's group activity could just as well be bowling; for them, the chorus creates community, not high art. Singing hasn't helped them find girlfriends, but perhaps it keeps them alive and warm at the top of the world.