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September 8, 2004

The Guardian (UK)

A film about delinquent schoolboy choristers has inspired a revival of enthusiasm for choral singing in France, attracting thousands of new members to choirs this autumn. Since the term began choirmasters have noticed that Les Choristes, a postwar boarding school drama, has precipitated a remarkable increase in the number signing up to become members. "The film has reawakened an extraordinary interest in singing," said Sebastien Fournier, an opera singer and conductor.

The Choirboys has been seen by more than 7.6 million people in France since its release in March, outstripping such obvious blockbusters as SpiderMan and Harry Potter. Miramax has it lined up as a contender for next year's best foreign film Academy award. Set in an authoritarian reform school in 1949, the film focuses on the attempts of a dissident master to subvert the draconian regime by teaching the boys to sing, and shows the redemptive power of music on the boys. It is a family feelgood movie with a saccharine gloss which has chimed with a new French nostalgia for the postwar era.

Marie-Christine Roux, of Ariam, a organisation run by musicians which puts individuals in contact with orchestras and choirs, said the effect on nascent choristers had been striking. "It's too early to collate the figures, but it is something which is becoming more and more fashionable. "We have received many more calls than usual from people who want to start singing, or who want to find a choir for their children," she said.

France has 7,000 choirs, excluding those in schools, in which about 280,000 people sing regularly. The French Institute of the Choral Art expects the number to rise steeply this year. The French revolution and the subsequent separation of the church and the state left cathedral choir schools in France with little state funding until about 30 years ago. "Anything which prompts a revival of interest is very welcome," Mr Fournier said.

The after-work choir is becoming a social phenomenon in France similar to that of the book club in Britain, providing both social activity and cultural stimulation. It is a cheap but rewarding way to spend the extra hours of free time which the arrival of the 35-hour week has given French workers. Véronique Gratiot, 32, a banker, who has given much of her spare time in the past five years to singing in a choir, said it was a hobby which offered many of the health-giving, life-enhancing attractions of the gym. "People come and meet other people. A lot of couples have met during choir practice," she said.

Les Choristes is a remake of the 1945 French hit La Cage aux Rossignols (The Cage of Nightingales). Its first-time director, Christophe Barratier, who completed the film on a budget of €5.5m (£3.7m), has been unable to explain its success. "This isn't a particularly fashionable subject," he admitted last month. Nevertheless, more than 700,000 copies of the soundtrack have been sold; the boy who plays the hero, Jean-Baptiste Maunier, has become a national star; and Gérard Jugnot, the actor who plays the music teacher, was voted one of France's most popular men this year.

Miramax has announced a US release date of January 14 and is highly touting the film for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. Let's hope the movie will have a similar effect here. The Telegraph states - "Les Choristes, which promises to be the French cinema's biggest international hit since the off-beat Parisian comedy Amelie, has done for the image of choral singing what Billy Elliot did for ballet and the musical Riverdance for Irish dance."

Posted by acapnews at September 8, 2004 9:45 PM