The Chorus (Les Choristes) (2004)

Lesley Smith

Christophe Barratier's Les Choristes demonstrates that French directors can challenge America's best in the saccharine stakes.

The Chorus (les Choristes)

Director: Christophe Barratier
Cast: Gérard Jugnot, Francois Berléand, Kad Merad, Jean-Paul Bonnaire, Jean-Baptiste Maunier, Maxence Perrin, Marie Bunel
Distributor: Buena Vista
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Miramax
First date: 2004
US DVD Release Date: 2005-05-03
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Christophe Barratier's Les Choristes demonstrates that French directors can challenge America's best in the saccharine stakes. This story of a failed composer, Clermont Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot), who washes up at a school for difficult boys and starts a choir threads sunny whimsy with a minor chord of melancholy. Change a few details -- the teacher's passion, the location -- and it could be Goodbye, Mr. Chips, To Sir With Love, Dead Poets Society, Beautiful Minds or Mr. Holland's Opus.

In generic tradition, Mathieu, an unlikely rebel whose idiosyncrasies the screenwriters never explore, subverts the headmaster's authority by protecting students from the consequences of their bad behavior, and discovers a musical prodigy in the most recalcitrant of the boys, Pierre Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier). Although the arrival of an unrepentant reformatory school transfer and a doomed infatuation briefly threaten Mathieu's choir, these obstacles are so cursory that it's impossible to take them seriously. They simply vanish under the weight of Barratier's emotional juggernaut, the blinding belief that those who have lost hope for themselves can still engender it in others.

That belief has animated some extraordinary films, such as Central Station and The Full Monty. But Les Choristes' failure to explore anything darker than romanticized longings (for love, fame, one's mother) mean that Barratier's characters have more than a hint of Disney Teflon about them. From very early in the movie, the threat of failure at Fond de L'Etang, even for the disappointed Mathieu, seems more an inconvenience than a fatal misstep. Although children might find this reassuring, the absence of dramatic tension leaves adults to look elsewhere for pleasures in this movie.

The setting, lighting, and camerawork create much of the nuance ignored by plot or character development. When Mathieu arrives at the rural school, France is still recovering from World War II. A washed-out palette of creams, grays, blues, and browns conveys the austerity of the period, and cool lighting emphasizes the parsimony of the operation Mathieu has joined. The aging caretaker Maxence (Jean-Paul Bonnaire) is also the school nurse, boys who transgress are condemned to clean the grounds, and the headmaster Rachin (Francois Berléand) relishes the power he exerts over pupils and staff who know they have reached the end of the line.

Barratier uses close-ups so sparingly that he rarely abstracts Mathieu (whom the students christen "Chrome Dome") or other characters from this setting. In a sense, where they are becomes part of who they are, whether that identity conveys melancholy or raises the comic quotient. The empty walls and gray light in a classroom behind Mathieu as he mimes the answer to a quiz question show more of the teacher's irresistible hopefulness than any of his carefully scripted late-night voice-over musings do. But no matter how many times Barratier lets his actors and mise en scene communicate visually (and the excellent cast capitalizes on each opportunity), they cannot rescue this mundane storyline.

The charitable might call this slender fable about the redemptive power of music a charming children's film. The skeptical might discern just one more movie that celebrates the individual who helps the weak, yet never challenges the structures that guarantee the dominance of the strong in the first place. It's a dead end for art, and the society on which it comments. This reviewer couldn't help longing for the arrival of Malcolm McDowell and the brace of machine guns from If to remind viewers that individual self-satisfaction is no substitute for public action, or original filmmaking.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

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The New Orleans trumpeter's lyrical meditation on disaster.

Terence Blanchard

A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina)

Contributors: Terence Blanchard, Brice Winston, Aaron Parks, Derrick Hodge, Kendrick Scott
Label: Blue Note
US Release Date: 2007-08-14
UK Release Date: 2007-08-13

Being from New Orleans is a burden for a jazz musician. There is a burden of history, particularly if you play the trumpet -- the weight of Louis "Pops" Armstrong hanging over you and constantly demanding whether you measure up or even dare to try. And now there is the weight of New Orleans's greatly magnified misery after natural disaster. Before Katrina, the blues was a legitimate act of joy in the face of struggle. Now?

If America is to expect a New Orleans musician to respond, then looking to Terence Blanchard makes sense. More than Wynton Marsalis, whose motives and artistry have been buried under the controversy he has courted as an arbiter of jazz legitimacy, Blanchard has charted a course of catholic taste and rich ambition. He has played hard bop without sentiment, he has worked with fusion and world music, and he has written a variety of orchestral music -- most notably for a series of films directed by Spike Lee. Mustering an original and eloquent response to Katrina would seem to require the last measure of Blanchard's talent and experience.

A Tale of God's Will is that response, and it arrives powerfully -- drenched in palpable sorrow. It is primarily a vehicle for Blanchard's solo trumpet playing, supported by his quintet and his skilled writing for strings. But it is a difficult record to dissect -- indeed, one that a listener does not want to pull apart too much.

It makes sense that God's Will tells a story, somewhat like a movie, as it was inspired in part by Blanchard's music for the Spike Lee documentary about Katrina, When the Levees Broke. (Blanchard was personally featured in one of the film's most moving sequences, accompanying his mother as she saw her destroyed home for the first time.) Moving from scene to scene and color to color, the music still tells a single story. It opens with a danceable joy -- polyrhythmic N'awlins groove and bottom leading to a chant: "This is a tale of God's will," repeated while Blanchard and bassist Derrick Hodge improvise with blues dash in the margins. This lyrical message, the title of the record, after all, seems both ironic and a statement of surviving faith. The hurricane, after all, came from beyond us -- but the tragedy was in our lives and in how we reacted (or failed to react). All of the music that follows "Ghost of Congo Square" suggests that this is a tale of God's will... plus.

"Levees" begins with Blanchard's strings -- unlike typical jazzman strings, certainly. This is string writing in neither a faux-jazz or faux-classical vein but rather writing that seems organic and essential to Blanchard's voice in expressing this emotion, strings that are not reaching for false "seriousness" or over-sweetness. That alone is a terrific accomplishment. Blanchard then enters, not as a jazzman playing over strings but as an integrated voice. Once the rhythm section joins, the track may sound more like "jazz", but the overall effect remains one of sculpted lament, with the strings continuing to comment on the solo through its climax, then restating the original theme as prelude a long out-chorus on which groups play with equal authority.

"Wading Through" is a beautiful feature for the quintet's pianist, Aaron Parks. Dramatic music that takes a tip from the ballad writing of Ahmad Jamal and also brings to mind Herbie Hancock's more cinematic writing, this track is unafraid of being sonically gorgeous. Lush without being saccharine, it is simply artful. The next tune, "Ashe", was written by Park, and it balances the various elements of the project brilliantly, with a string introduction that sets off a duet between trumpet and piano. The brief improvised piano solo suggest the kind of work Keith Jarrett might have done with strings if his megalomania had not prevented him from ever courting the joys of simplicity. Blanchard's solo here is even more liquid and original, with the trumpeter squeezing out notes that sound less like brass than like something that might melt in the New Orleans heat. Each trumpet solo on this record balanced control with raw emotion.

If Tale of God's Will had done nothing but continue in this productive vein, it would have been a remarkable, excellent album. But its reach is actually more wide and ambitious. "In Time of Need" (written by saxophone player Brice Winston) incorporates hand percussion and wordless vocals with the band and the strings -- making the kind of seamless modern music that might be associated with Pat Metheny, but without Metheny's sometime electronic shimmer of artificiality. "The Water" is a concerto for dark-swaying strings and Blanchard at his bent-note darkest, while "Mantra" (written by drummer Kendrick Scott) begins with tablas and ringing electric bass from Derrick Hodge and develops into complex arrangement for strings and quintet in full blossom.

Taken as a whole, two elements of this recording stand out. First, Blanchard and his group play selflessly, without reaching for flashy effects or long solos. Everything about this record is about bringing the compositions to full fruition, and the improvisation always sounds integrated with the full purpose of the music. Second, every element of the record is incorporated into its theme. Even the tracks that are somewhat disparate (a swinging duet between bass and trumpet on "Ghost of Betsy" and a fragmentary tenor solo on "Ghost of 1927", particularly) play as interludes that breathe life into the project between larger movements.

By the time you get to "Funeral Dirge", there have certainly been flashes of light through the dark skies, but never so many as to blur the tenor of the tragedy. Blanchard and his talented group do what artists have done for so long -- to channel real life into something more rarefied and permanent, a record of feeling that transcends the news and gets at the human truth of things. You can certainly listen to Tale of God's Will with Katrina in mind, but it is equally fruitful to hear it as a contemporary essay in blues sensibility: sophisticated in the extreme and finally about a kind of triumph. The "God's Will" of the title might be heard less as a comment on the hurricane or our terribly flawed emergency response than as a comment on our emotional response.

The final track, "Dear Mom", is an explicit reference to Blanchard's mother, whose lost home is so painfully experienced in Spike Lee's documentary. But what we remember about that scene -- and what we will remember about this music -- is not the loss but Mr. Blanchard's statement to his mom that "this is all stuff that can be rebuilt". This seemed utterly absurd in the context of the film, so vast was the destruction. But it was said with the love and optimism of a son -- God's will to move forward. And, on this recording, it is said again with the love and optimism of a jazz musician who believes in the blues ethic of beauty and growth coming from pain.

A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina) is certainly beautiful, and it seems to be a sign of growth in our music that improvisation, composed writing for string orchestra, and so many other elements should coalesce into something so consistently rewarding and original. Terence Blanchard's promise as a total artist is brought to resounding fruition on this majestic recording.


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