Hunky Dory

In Films, H by Chris Patmore

When it comes to fictional portrayals of school life, the US and UK could not be more different.

When it comes to fictional portrayals of school life, the US and UK could not be more different. High school figures as a major setting for the film and TV output from the US as the most important part of a person’s life – or at least the most memorable. Is it because the life of Joe Citizen goes downhill after school as they end up becoming wage slaves working for the man?

Although, to be fair, the presentation of schools in the US, mainly California, does seem to be preferable to most Brits’ memories of school, with classrooms that are freezing in the winter and boiling in the summer, punctuated with malodorous school dinners of often dubious origins. Not a lot to be nostalgic or romantic about.

Harry Potter aside, the most memorable school-set British films are To Sir, With Love and If… and, of course, St Trinians. When it comes to musical versions then the US knows how to make hits with films such as Grease, High School Musical and the all-conquering Glee on TV. Marc EvansHunky Dory brings a British sensibility to this traditionally American territory.

Set in a high school in South Wales during the memorable summer of 1976 – before people worried about global warming and simply enjoyed/whinged about the heat – the film focuses on drama teacher Viv (a perfectly cast Minnie Driver) as she tries to enthuse her students into performing the end-of-year show; a hybrid of Shakespeare’s Tempest and contemporary music, with a heavy leaning towards Bowie tunes. Naturally, Viv’s artistic temperament riles the more conservative members of staff and also fails to fully engage the students who are otherwise involved with the usual problems of broken homes and raging hormones, further stoked by that summer’s blistering heat.

As with Billy Elliot and the more recent indie flick Soul Boy, the movie perfectly captures those halcyon days without drifting into the usual gritty, kitchen sink dramas this country is better known for. Whatever issues the film does address are tempered with rose-tinted glasses, humour and plenty of music. Unlike Glee, we actually see the musicians and they all play instruments that you would find in a reasonably funded school along with a selection of improvised instruments. The singing is strong, especially from the lead Davey, played by Anuerin Barnard (recently seen as David Bailey in the BBC film We’ll Take Manhattan), with great arrangements of the classic songs that don’t leave you cringing.

Overall, the story is slight, which, all things considered, is not a bad thing, so you are not bogged down by melodrama and you actually come away feeling good at the end of it. It will clearly appeal to fans of Glee and Spring Awakening, as well as their parents, who will enjoy the nostalgia and the soundtrack. It may not have the energy or following of Streetdance, but it is a well made UK film that deserves success and will hopefully pick up an audience through word of mouth.