The chorus of New York school PS22 became famous with their cover versions of pop songs posted on Youtube. A new documentary explores the rise of the troupe, and the challenges of their dedicated teacher, as they journey to the 2011 Oscars.
Oscar viewers may recall the chorus closing the 84th Annual Academy Awards in February 2011 with a rousing rendition of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow." They were joined halfway through the song by the evening's award-winners gathered behind them and gaily singing along. It was a moving moment that beautifully encapsulated the incredible skill, talent, and dedication of the chorus as they rose to fame covering songs by popular acts like Coldplay, Adele, and Lady Gaga, and garnering the praise of parents, educators, politicians and celebrities along the way.
Filmmaker Jonathan Kalafer skillfully portrays the ups and downs of the 2010-2011 PS22 chorus in Once In A Lullaby. The documentary had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, and enjoys a Canadian premiere June 16th at the North by Northeast Festival. Kalafer, who is a public school teacher as well as a filmmaker, shares a friendship with PS22 principal Melissa Donath, and had an inside track on the chorus' rise almost from the start. The film cleverly weaves the narrative arc of the chorus performing at the Oscars (Anne Hathaway is shown making a visit to the school to extend an invite to the pie-eyed choristers) with smaller, more intimate stories. Teacher and chorus master Gregg Breinberg's clash with Oscar producers is shown along with sensitive portrayals of troupe members, including soloists Denise, who goes hoarse the night before the Oscars, and Azaria, who must struggle to get back in the troupe after being kicked out of school for bad behavior. The result is a deeply moving portrait of a creative force that can and should inspire kids, teachers, parents, and arts administrators.
Kalafer and I exchanged ideas about the genesis of his work, and the serious issues underlying it related to arts education and funding.
When did you first decide to track and document the PS22 Chorus and why?
I had been a fan of the chorus for years and as a documentary filmmaker I can't really be interested in something for any length of time without considering at least for a brief moment about doing a documentary on it. I had been giving serious consideration to a documentary about the PS22 Chorus for years but the timing wasn't right. I didn't feel their story was at the right point and I didn't think I would be able to get it done logistically. At their Holiday Show in 2010 it became very clear that it was the right time.
What is it about the PS22 chorus that sets them apart from other school choruses?
Well, first of all, they are very much a New York City chorus. They just represent NYC with their vibe, their attitude, and their backgrounds and I think that is an important part of their identity. Additionally I think that the direction that Breinberg ("Mr. B") takes them into is what really makes them special. Between his musical selection, arrangements, and I think most importantly his ability to let them be themselves he takes them into pretty unique territory.
How did you choose which kids' stories to tell?
Partially the kids chose who we should focus on. We shot almost entirely verite, so it was really the kids who were the the most outgoing that we knew the audience would be very interested in. We knew that our verite footage would leave the audience wondering if we didn't focus on some of the kids. A few that we focused on were pretty randomly selected... it just came down to who we were able to co-ordinate schedules with. The reality is that every one of those kids are stars and other than the realities of making a film, we could have focused on all or any, and it would have been amazing.
The PS22 Chorus performing at the 2011 Academy Awards. "I made this film because I was mesmerized by the chorus," notes Kalafer, "Mr. B's teaching style, the kids personalities, and of course all that amazing music. It was such a splendid subject to work with."
There are so many connotations within the PS22 story: arts funding, the state of teaching and education in America, the role of the internet in making kids stars now. You honed in on the teacher/student relationship in Once In A Lullaby instead. Why? What do you think about this is dramatically compelling?
Hmmm. Great question. Well first of all, as I said I really think that Mr. B's teaching style and his relationship with his students is what makes them unique so I feel it really is the corner stone of the story. However, as fascinated as I am about all of those other topics relevant to this story (and I have some strong feelings about a few), I felt I really wanted this to be more from the kids' perspectives and I feel that gives a more pure feel and a wider range of appeal. Those hot-button issues in our society trigger a lot of things in people. With Once in a Lullaby, I really wanted to show people the story at the core of all those arguments. Hopefully we remind them of why they are arguing to begin with.
The internet that made the chorus famous also has a way of forgetting about sensations quickly - how much was this a consideration when making the movie?
Yes, the downside of unlimited choice means there is always something else to choose I suppose. But I don't think that the PS22 Chorus will lose its appeal the way memes often do. I think the Chorus really connects with people on a deep level and that gives it staying power. It has already stood the test of time really. I'd be lying if I said this type of thought never crossed my mind, but it wan't a big consideration during production.
Teacher and chorus master Gregg Breinberg walks down a hall at PS22 in Staten Island. Director Jonathan Kalafer says his documentary has a deeper thread: "The PS22 Chorus story shows us that when a teacher is given the freedom to choose the direction of their curriculum and has the support of the administration, the sky is really the limit."
What do you hope this film does in terms of teaching in a wider sense?
Right now teaching is a hot-button political topic. I hope that this film can remind people about the magic that happens in the classroom. Mr. B. really teaches from his center, and that is really him there with those kids and I think that is important. In terms of music education, I think that (he) shows us that veering from traditional music education based on genres that are not relevant to most people alive today gives us a lot to be proud of.