The Sydney Morning Herald

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Grace notes

by Sandra Hall

Dramas behind the scenes of a musical performance make enthralling viewing.


"The show must go on.'' That mantra has given birth to a million movie musicals, many of which have retained the power to give you a high every time you watch them.
Yet next to none of them would claim much relationship with reality. Even if they're inspired by the life of a musician or a composer, they tend to turn into fairytales before the end of the first song.
Mrs Carey's Concert, on the other hand, is firmly rooted in reality.


It's a documentary about the Sydney independent high school, MLC Burwood, its head music teacher and the effort she puts into producing the school's end-of-year concert at the Opera House. Yet, despite its close relationship to the present, this is a film as spirited as any feel-good fantasy in the annals of the movie musical. The heroic Karen Carey and her dedication to the art of getting the show up and running ensure it.
The concert is staged every two years and the program is invariably made up of pieces in the classical tradition. Carey believes great music to be one of the essential building blocks in the education of young minds. Thus, all 1200 students are required to take part whether or not they want to. And a few of them definitely do not want to.
To them, music is a bore, rehearsals a bind and Carey an impediment.
Carey's chief antagonist is Iris, one of the school's sophisticates. She's tall and attractive, with a finely honed sense of drama. When Iris is on screen, there's much hair-tossing. She has a very easy relationship with the camera and formidable debating skills.
Once she's in full flow, Carey tends to fall silent, looking bemused. Her silence, however, should not be construed as defeat. Far from it.


This is award-winning director Bob Connolly's first film since the death nine years ago of his wife and filmmaking partner, Robin Anderson. They made Facing the Music, Rats in the Ranks and their Papua New Guinea trilogy, which began with First Contact in 1982. And after Anderson's death, it looked for a while that Connolly might never make another film but he has found a new collaborator in this movie's co-director, Sophie Raymond.


Because Connolly's daughters attended MLC, he has known Carey for years and before her 2007 concert, she asked him to make a DVD for the performers' parents. This planted the idea for the film and he and Raymond spent the next 18 months following Carey and her staff around as they shaped the program, corralled their chorus, chose their soloists and cajoled them into achieving new heights.
The program is demanding - Brahms, Ravel, Bruch, a new violin piece by the school's resident composer, Damian Barbeler, and the grand chorus from Verdi's Aida memorised and sung in Italian by the whole student body.


Add in the recalcitrant Iris and her friends and the stage seems set for the kind of eruptions that burst out of the shallows of reality TV. Yet it never happens. While there are wrangles and standoffs, there are no temper tantrums. Nor does Carey exhibit the brand of theatricality you might expect from somebody devoted to high art.
When trying to drum up enthusiasm from her students, she likes to tell them about her own school days in the country, where the possibility of a school music department was unimaginable. She's obsessive but unpretentious - large, comfortably dishevelled and blissfully unselfconscious before the camera. At the concert, she wears make-up for the first time in the film and even then there's no vanity involved. It seems more a matter of ritual - donning warpaint in preparation for a monumental challenge.
In getting all of this on to the screen, Connolly uses a technique perfected over years of observational filmmaking. Its essentials are patience and unobtrusiveness.
He and Raymond simply stay around until everybody gets used to them and the result is richly anecdotal and consistently enthralling for all the right reasons. In getting to know these people, you acquire a variety of motives for wanting them to succeed. Chief among them is the fact they deserve to.
The concert's main soloist is to be Emily Sun, an exceptionally gifted violin scholarship student who, like Iris, is from a Chinese family. She's a reluctant star who has been playing truant and Carey is having to be as tactful as she knows how to bring her into line.
When she does, a new problem arises. While Emily's technique is faultless, her playing needs more passion. How does she feel about the music? Carey wants to know and Emily can't tell her. Exasperated, she explains to the camera that if she tries to put it into words, the music loses all meaning.
And in the end, she's absolutely right.


On the night, the music says it all and Emily is now en route to a full scholarship in London at the Royal College of Music.
As for the results of Carey's duel with Iris, you must see the film, which is well worth every exhilarating minute.