The new Welsh film Hunky Dory, which premiered last night in London, doesn't exactly tackle unchartered cinematic territory. Didn't Sidney Poitier back in 1967 in To Sir, With Love cover the idealistic high school teacher seeking to set working-class youths in the right direction upon their graduation? American contributions to the sub-genre include The Blackboard Jungle (1955), Up the Down Staircase (1967) and Teachers (1983), to name a few.
Hunky Dory is set in 1976 at a Swansea school, whose students are entranced by David Bowie (hence, the title). Minnie Driver plays Vivienne, the bohemian performing arts teacher preparing a production of The Tempest that "would make William Shakespeare and David Bowie proud," as she explains to her hormones-raged pupils and skeptical teaching colleagues.
Otherwise, the film is a bit weak on plot, as we get various slice-of-life glimpses of working-class kids from broken families as they somehow manage to get themselves to school during the week (Skins, Glee, anyone?). Pyromania is suspected when the musical's set and half the school are burned down, but the film ends without the crime getting solved. And what teen drama would be without a coming-out story?
Notwithstanding that cliché, Viv's sexuality is briefly questioned by a loutish rugby coach. Driver's character apparently shares her house with fellow, like-minded liberal teachers, a male and a female, from the same school. No ménage a tois is ever suggested, and the film could have easily turned into an updated version of The Children's Hour, as the result of her continuing feud with the faculty's resident fascist, Mrs. Valentine (Haydn Gwynne). Viv goes about being the students' advocate with righteous dignity, quietly backed by the headmaster (Robert Pugh). It's nice to see the arts supported in an academic setting in these austerity-minded times.
At a private screening Thursday night in New York sponsored by the Welsh government here, it was the music that held my attention throughout. Using soft drink bottles containing various amounts of liquids for different levels of percussion, cue flutes, this talented bunch of kids give a new lease on life to not only Bowie tunes, but also other overplayed 1970s hits by the likes of Electric Light Orchestra. Who would have ever thought that "Strange Magic" could sound so hip in 2012?
Aneurin Barnard dominates the screen as dreamy-eyed Davey, who beautifully sings "Life On Mars" early in the film and develops a crush on teach after getting dumped by class dish Stella (Daniella Branch). Like the 20-somethings cast from Glee, Barnard manages to pull off teenhood.
I happily found out afterwards that the student actors - not studio musicians - really played what was heard and seen on screen. It's clearly a case of art imitating life, or vice versa, given the Welsh eisteddfod tradition of children showing off their talents in music, literature and performance for an annual festival.
New arrangements of classic rock songs, powered by wall-of-sound choirs accompanied by sparse instrumentation, also have been done before effectively by both young (Langley Schools Music Project, Canadian-recorded in 1976 and released on CD in 2001) and old (Young At Heart, 2007 film), not to mention Ray Davies and the Crouch End Festival Chorus's resulting The Kinks Choral Collection (2009).
Kudos to Hunky Dory's musical director and arranger Jeremy Holland-Smith, whose gypsy arrangement to Bowie's "The Man Who Sold The World" is one of the most imaginative cover versions of any song I've ever heard. It's the epitome of what a cover should be - breaking down and transforming it into something entirely different but just as memorable as the original, unlike lame note-for-note tribute bands. Introduced mid-way through Hunky Dory's long-awaited performance of The Tempest, the choreography matches the spirited rendition.
Also deserving praise is music supervisor Liz Gallacher for dusting off The Byrds' "Everybody's Been Burned," arguably David Crosby at his pensive finest.