Title: The Choir
Director: Francois Girard
Major Players: Dustin Hoffman, Kathy Bates, Eddie Izzard
Out Of Five: 3
Music seems to have got under Dustin Hoffman’s skin in his later years, certainly as far as his films are concerned. He directed Quartet in 2012, all about a group of people in a home for retired musicians. Now he stars in Choir – nothing to do with the current fashion for community choirs, but something more elitist. And it bears a striking resemblance to another of this year’s movies.
You wouldn’t think that this, with its PG certificate and family audience, would have much in common with the relentless, adrenalin pumped Whiplash. Yet their essential stories are remarkably similar. In the case of The Choir, the talented youngster is the rebellious 11 year old Stet (Garrett Wareing) who lives with his single mum. His head teacher (Debra Winger) knows he has a great voice and tries but fails to get him to audition for the prestigious Boychoir. Fast forward by several months: his mother’s dead, his stranger of a dad turns up and more or less buys Stet a place at the Boychoir school. He struggles at first, coming up against Cavelle (Dustin Hoffman), the main tutor and the school’s best singer, Devon (Joe West). But, as time goes on, the school brings out the best in him, in more ways than just his singing.
The Choir has taken the same idea as Whiplash, stripped it of its blood, sweat and ferocity and produced something in a softer focus. Whiplash For Kids, as it were. Unfortunately, there were times when I really wanted J K Simmons’ Terence Fletcher to burst into the room, hurl a chair at somebody and let rip with a mouthful of invective as only he could. It would have livened up the whole thing and brought it somewhere closer to reality. Instead, what we’ve got is a poor relation, smothered in soap suds and overflowing with clichés.
It’s almost as if director Francois Girard had a check list of them to fit in the film and he’s left hardly any unturned. So much so that they caused more than a few ripples of laughter among the assembled hacks watching it. Try these for size. The choir is about to give a major performance but, on the day, Devon goes down with a bad throat and can’t sing the solo. So Stet is given a few hours to prepare to step into his shoes. Well, we saw that coming, didn’t we? As he’s getting ready to sing, he opens his folder on stage and, lo and behold, it’s empty! Guess why. Ten out of ten! Devon is stood in the wings, in full hoodie looking like a demonic monk, with the score in his hands.
The film boasts a solid cast, lead by Hoffman and with Kathy Bates, Winger, Kevin McHale and Eddie Izzard. Hoffman genuinely plays the piano in the film – he studied it as a child – but he looks less comfortable when conducting the choir. There’s little sense that he feels the music, that it really means anything to him in the way he’s trying to drum into young Stet. Instead, it’s Eddie Izzard’s Drake, permanently in Cavelle’s shadow, who lives and breathes the music and you can almost see it flowing through his body when he listens or conducts. Bates manages to breathe some life into her feisty but warm hearted headmistress but you have to feel sorry for actors like her and Hoffman, who really deserve something more substantial to get their teeth into.
If you’re into classical music, and the choral variety in particular, you’ll revel in the singing. Even somebody who’s tone deaf can tell it’s superb, so beautiful at times that it easily brings a sentimental tear to the eye. Sadly the film doesn’t match up to the music in any which way. It doesn’t match up to Whiplash either.
The Choir is released in the UK on Friday, 10 July and is reviewed on this week’s Talking Pictures.