Tracks the progress of a group of outback NSW school kids given a crash course in choral performance. A paean to the transformational power of music and impassioned tutelage, Wide Open Sky is enthralling, funny, moving – a little jewel of a doco.
The Moorambilla Voices regional choir is the brainchild of conductor and musical evangelist Michelle Leonard. Every year she assembles a choir of kids from far-flung communities in the NSW bush and at an intensive 3 day camp prepares them for a one-off public concert performance, held a few weeks later. It’s a big deal, a full stage production backed by professional musicians.
Incorporating some lovely regional landscapes and giving us a glimpse into small town and remote community life, the film follows Michelle as she travels far and wide to audition this year’s prospective choir members. Forming a choir is an unlikely venture in an environment where sporting events and the pub are the social hubs, but the children are keen and their parents supportive. And the innate musical talent and will to learn that emerges is extraordinary. So much for stereotypes.
Mack is one of four kids who feature prominently. He looks like Peter Allen might have at 12, and has a sublime singing voice (watch the trailer below). He dreams of being a dancer and thespian and practises his moves in the privacy of his vast farm paddock backyard (his father’s wry observation that he was never going to make a rugby player is hilarious in its redundancy).
Opal and Taylor are miles apart geographically and culturally, but they have a couple of things in common. Both have musical aspirations. And both are irresistibly endearing.
Then there is the cute, pint-sized, indigenous primary schooler Kyh, who loves his rugby but takes on the choir with competitive zeal, singing his heart out. He seems pleased enough with Michelle appointing him her “understudy” when he just misses out on a solo vocal role, but later confesses with bemusement that he doesn’t know what an understudy is. Sweet, funny little moments like this pop up throughout the film.
The children’s ages vary and their backgrounds range from privileged to poor, but as Michelle observes, the choir is a “great leveller”. The camp is a challenge for all. None of the kids have any experience of choirs or the type of musical performance required (the repertoire comprises original songs by budding Australian composers), and for most it is their first extended time away from home. Michelle is acutely aware of this. Like all good teachers, she is empathic and therefore able to project herself into the position of her students, whom she declares “brave.”
And right she is. She is a hard taskmaster nevertheless, refusing to mollycoddle or patronise her charges. Ably assisted by the gorgeous young composer whose song provides the title of the film (she soon becomes a role model for some of the girls), Michelle demands a discipline and quality of performance that pushes them beyond comfortable limits, both personally and as a musical team. In so doing, she opens the children to new possibilities and instills in them the self-belief that comes of hard-earned extraordinary achievement. Indeed, this is as much the point of the choir as drawing forth and nurturing musical talent.
It is clear by the end of the film that many of the kids see a new world of promise ahead of them. However, a cutaway scene of a group of birds on a railing provides a poignant reality check when most take flight, but some are left behind.
It is this awareness that makes this delightful doco so moving – that these beautiful, heart-rendingly innocent kids from the bush, trusting and malleable in the good hands of the inspirational choir mistress who sets them free to dream, will not all make it through the minefield ahead.
But thoughts like these have no place at the concert. The kids give their all before a sizeable audience including their proud parents, and are rewarded with rapturous applause. Whatever the course of their lives, the choir is a gift that will keep on giving. Feel-good finales don’t get any better.
Wide Open Sky features:
Writer/Director: Lisa Nicol
Australian release date: Thu 14 April (showing in Perth at Luna Palace Cinemas: Cinema Paradiso, Windsor Cinema, Camelot Outdoor)
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