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July 19, 2004

The French have discovered a passion for choral singing thanks to a new film which looks set to take over from "Amelie'' as the latest export success for Gallic nostalgia-chic. An undemanding tale of how music changes the lives of a group of reform school-boys in post-war France, "Les Choristes'' - "The Choir-boys'' in English - has blitzed at the box-office, with 6.7 million ticket sales that outstrip even the latest Harry Potter production. The sound-track, featuring a dozen songs performed in cherubic mass-treble, has topped the album charts with some 500,000 copies sold, while Jean-Baptiste Maunier - the angelic 13-year-old from Lyon who is the film's lead voice - has become an overnight star.

Meanwhile choir-masters across the country have been inundated by applications from boys and girls who say their lives have been changed by the music. "The film has made choral singing fashionable. It has succeeding in winning over young people who had no previous musical culture,'' says Jean-Francois Duchamp, president of the Federation of Petits Chanteurs which comprises more than 100 church and cathedral choirs. Starring one of France's most popular actors Gerard Jugnot as Clement Mathieu, a humble music teacher who uses singing to redeem the lost souls at the Fond de l'Etang school, ``Les Choristes'' is a re-make of a little-known 1945 film called ``La Cage aux Rossignols'' or The Cage for Nightingales.

When Mathieu arrives in 1949, the boys - many of them war-orphans - are running riot under the brutal but ineffective rule of the vile head-master Rachin. Gradually he gains their trust and by showing what they can achieve together in a choir brings a new spirit to their lives. Maunier's character eventually wins a scholarship to a city conservatoire. Various explanations have been adduced for the film's success - a total lack of sex and violence, the sepia-coloured setting in a land of short trousers and simple values, the hopeful message it offers for children in today's more troubled times - all of which should carry ``Les Choristes'' to new popularity abroad.

``Our first soundings are excellent, and we are counting on a new Amelie Poulain,'' says Natalie Villette of Pathe Distribution, which has sold the film to scores of countries. It comes out in Britain in January, and in the US at the end of this year (though presumably under a name other than The Choir-boys which was a violent 1979 picture about the Los Angeles police force). "There is a real magic. It appeals to every generation - children, the 15 to 25s, and older people with memories of the era. And just like with Amelie, you come out feeling good,'' she says. Amelie of Montmartre, which was released in 2001, was about the adventures of a whimsical young woman in a spray-brushed Paris and became the biggest French film export of all time.

But above all it is the singing in "Les Choristes'' that has captured the imagination in France, and though some professionals are sniffy about the commercial nature of Bruno Coulais' score, all are delighted by the publicity given to a pastime which they say has been in steady - but unreported - growth for several years. "Every June I audition around 50 eight year-olds, and normally they give me Freres Jacques or something like that. This year nearly every single one sang me a song from ``Les Choristes''. That is how popular it is,'' says Francois Polgar, who heads the choir of Sainte-Croix de Neuilly outside Paris.

France used to have a tradition of cathedral choir-schools dating from mediaeval times, but the link was brutally cut in the Revolution and it is only in the past-war era that it has been revived. In the last 20 years a nationwide network of non-religious choirs has also been built up with the help of regional funding, with the result that there are now some 25,000 children's and adult ensembles singing a repertoire that includes Jazz, Variety and - increasingly - Gospel. According to Thierry Thibault, artistic director of the A Coeur Joie confederation of choirs, there has been a gradual increase of applications to choirs over several years, in which the sudden rush that followed the release of ``Les Choristes'' will prove to be an unusually strong but temporary blip.

"Personally I do not think the film was a masterpiece,'' says Thibault, who in August is directing the international Choralies 2004 festival at Vaison-La-Romaine. ``But I am delighted that it has brought choral singing out of the restrictive image it had of being purely religious. It was too closely tied to the church, but the film showed a whole other side.'' As for the reasons why in an age dominated by pop music, television and sport so many children should feel the pull of the conductor's baton, Thibault is in no doubt. "Today we live in a civilisation that isolates. Internet, game-boys, television - they create activities that are in essence solitary. But man needs company. And to sing in a choir all you need to bring along is yourself,'' he says.

Posted by acapnews at July 19, 2004 10:12 PM


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