Mention a movie about a boys’ choir, and images of scruffy French urchins aren’t likely to leap to mind. Yet it’s those kids — rather than freshly scrubbed, rosy-cheeked English or Austrian choristers — for whom Bruno Coulais had to compose the chorales in Christophe Barratier’s “Les Choristes” (“The Choir”), France’s top-grossing pic this year and its entry for the foreign-lingo Oscar. (It opens in New York and L.A. on Jan. 14.)
Based largely on the 1945 film “La Cage aux rossignols” (“A Cage of Nightingales”), “Les Choristes” tells of a group of troubled boys, virtually imprisoned in a rundown boarding school, whose lives are elevated by music, thanks to Clement Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot), a rumpled schoolmaster who happens to be a failed composer.
Writer-director Barratier and Coulais had worked together before — on the documentary “Microcosmos” (1996), among other things — but this project was different. The pieces the boys sing are supposed to be by Mathieu.
Coulais, who also wrote the film’s incidental music, faced two challenges: writing choral music for the first time and making it sound like the work of a gifted amateur. “I was well aware that for the story and the characters to be credible, the music mustn’t be too complex,” the composer explains via email from Paris.
To get across the idea that the boys’ singing was improving, Coulais wrote increasingly more difficult music, culminating in a Kyrie for the end credits. “I consider it a projection of what Mathieu dreamed of getting with the choir,” he says.
Barratier, himself a trained musician, offered his own contributions, writing two pieces, including “Cerf-volant,” one of the choir’s signature works. Yet Coulais says his old friend “never imposed anything on me.”
Fueled by the movie’s success, Coulais’ score has climbed the European music charts, selling more than a million CDs. (Nonesuch releases the soundtrack in the U.S. on Jan 4.)
“If the public is touched by this music,” the composer says, “it is because the film shows that music belongs to everyone. It is not just there for a social elite or professional performance. It can and must be performed by amateurs whose sole aim is pleasure.”