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Les Choristes

Gérard Jugnot in Les Choristes, 2004I have written recently about how much I treasure the sound of boys singing, when it's done well. The tradition of boys' choirs is so important, historically speaking, because of how many top-level composers and performers got their first musical training by singing in them. That is the premise of a recent French film, Christophe Barratier's Les Choristes (released in the United States as The Chorus), which I mentioned here last January because it did so well at the box office in France. (One of the former members of the boys' choir shown in the movie becomes a famous conductor.) The movie received two Oscar nominations (Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Song for Bruno Coulais's Vois Sur Ton Chemin, performed incomprehensibly—according to Julie Delpy, with whom I agree—by Beyonce at the ceremony) but ultimately did not win. I finally got around to seeing it myself, and I loved it.

Jean-Baptiste MaunierCritics have argued that the film is a saccharine fantasy, and that's true. You do not start with any group of boys in any institution of the size of the reform school in the movie and miraculously end up with Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Marc, from Lyon's Maîtrise de la Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière, the children's choir that is featured so beautifully on the soundtrack. Choirs of that caliber are not impossible to put together, but it usually requires a much more careful selection from a larger group. It is certainly possible that one particularly gifted singer could be found in just about any group, like Pierre Morhange (portrayed movingly by Jean-Baptiste Maunier, shown at right, who is one of the Saint-Marc choristers and who now enjoys almost American Idol-level celebrity in France). In my own experience teaching boys to sing, I have encountered a handful of truly exceptional voices, at about the rate of one every other year. The movie would not be as enjoyable, however, if we had to listen to a soundtrack of choral singing of a more realistic level of quality. Furthermore, the movie would not be inspiring children in France to join choirs, as it reportedly is, without the very best singing on that soundtrack (buy it from Amazon).

Available from Amazon:
Available at Amazon
The Chorus (Les Choristes), Christophe Barratier
(U.S. release on May 3)
Les Choristes is a remake of a musical film by Jean Dréville called La Cage aux Rossignols (The Nightingales' Cage, 1945), with Noël-Noël [Lucien Noël] as the kind-hearted supervisor turned choir master, Clément Mathieu. The director Claude Duty wrote an interesting comparison (Les Choristes un remake très inspiré, in L'Humanité, September 29, 2004) of Les Choristes and the original version, which was re-released in French theaters around that time. Georges Chaperot created the story for the 1945 film, which was adapted and updated by Christophe Barratier, from his own childhood memories.

Other Reviews:

On an Overgrown Path

NPR (with excerpts from the soundtrack)

The Fredösphere
Gérard Jugnot was absolutely perfect as the Chaplinesque pion, Clément Mathieu, the sad sack with a heart of gold. A failed musician, he takes this new job as instructor and, more importantly, dormitory supervisor at a severely administered reform school. In that sense, it is about the travails of a difficult childhood in France, which has been the inspiration for countless other artists, like François Truffaut's legendary Les 400 Coups and a novel I have just finished reading, Hervé Bazin's Vipère au poing (more about that shortly). Truffaut's alter ego, Antoine Doinel, ends up in a harsh place not unlike Fond de l'Etang in this movie. Again, the process of how music and singing can help children in all sorts of trouble is much more complicated than what Barratier shows (one minute the class is rowdily throwing paper, and the next minute they are lined up in perfect rows). For me, as someone who has taught children to sing, the lack of realism is not important: I found the film to be very inspiring without being overly syrupy in its sentimentality. The children were all well directed, and the screenplay gave a good sense of the moral ambiguity of many of the characters, which makes the film a rich experience.

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