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Film Review: ‘Wide Open Sky’

This Aussie docu about an outback children's choir sings a winning tune.

With:
Michelle Leonard, Opal, Mack, Khynan, Taylah, Katelyn, Ella, Alice Chance, Justin, Dot, Miss Nora.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4085484/

The power of music to bring hope, confidence and joy to the lives of children is beautifully relayed in the Aussie docu “Wide Open Sky.” Following dedicated conductor Michelle Leonard as she assembles a choir of kids from far-flung outback towns, this down-to-earth crowdpleaser is a terrific antidote to the razzle-dazzle hype of TV talent shows. A rare example of a local documentary receiving fully-fledged theatrical release, “Sky” has all the attributes to become a critical and word-of-mouth hit. Pic opens domestically on April 14 following a successful international fest run which included the audience award at Sydney. Pubcasters and distributors in the educational market should take a look.

In the well stocked field of documentaries and dramas about community choirs having a positive effect on participants, “Wide Open Sky” ranks highly thanks to a genuinely inspiring central character and the trust director Lisa Nicol has clearly established with her young subjects. It’s easy to tell from their wonderfully natural, honest and frequently funny testimony that they’ve bonded with the person asking all those questions.

Docu kicks off in the middle of Leonard’s annual 2,500-mile road trip in western New South Wales, where she conducts auditions for Moorambilla Voices Choir. The journey takes her to more than 50 schools in 30 remote towns where financial hardship is not uncommon and literacy levels are sometimes low.

A dynamic and enormously appealing combination of passionate artist and pragmatic producer who has to scrap and scramble to secure financial support from government and private sources, Leonard explains why she’s been committed to this task for the past six years. Funding cutbacks have left many schools in isolated areas with little or no capacity to provide music lessons. Music, as Leonard sees it, is about much more than rhythms and melodies. It’s about sparking critical thought and opening the minds of young people to life’s opportunities and possibilities.

It’s hard to imagine any viewers not warming to this optimistic, can-do crusader who looks for candidates “that will take a positive risk” and “have a burning need to express themselves outside the environment they’re in.” When 2,000-plus elementary school kids turn up to compete for 130 places, Leonard finds plenty of candidates fitting the description. Of the many hopefuls Nicol doubtlessly filmed, those in the final cut are, without exception, great kids that audiences will adore and admire.

Opal, from tiny mining town Grawin, writes her own songs and (ah, youth) dreams of a dual career as singer and naturalist. Aboriginal boy Khynan loves football and singing, and hopes to win a scholarship to a prestigious Sydney school. Taylah, from a large and loving Aboriginal family, has her sights set on becoming a country music singer. Jolly jokers in the pack are Ella and Katelyn, super-enthusiastic besties whose running commentary on everything and everyone connected with the choir is good-natured and frequently hilarious.

If there’s a first among equals here it’s Mack, a sensitive lad who loves to sing and dance. He expresses himself very beautifully when talking about not wanting to reveal too much about his interests at school because he “might lose friends.” The film’s highlights include Mack’s rendition of “Edelweiss” and his dance on the roof of his family’s house.

Much of the running time is spent at a three-day camp where the 130 successful applicants, many of whom have never been away from home before, are put through their paces in preparation for performing at a major regional music festival.

It doesn’t matter one jot that some kids don’t have golden voices and there’s no major competitive element once the 130 singers have been chosen. As Leonard says to the boys during rehearsals, “it’s not X-Factor, it’s Moorambilla.” Though refreshingly free of conflict, histrionics and hissy fits, there’s never a sense that this is a picnic for anyone.

All roads naturally lead to a public performance finale. Accompanying expressions of joy and hope from Leonard and the youngsters will moisten the eyes of many viewers.

Crisply edited by Anna Craney (also producing and writing with Nicol) and attractively shot by Carolyn Constantine, “Sky” is dotted with lovely snapshots of life in rarely-filmed old towns such as Brewarrina, Cobar and Lightning Ridge. One such postcard-worthy moment shows Taylah busking outside a Brewarrina butcher shop that wouldn’t look out of place in Fred Zinnemann’s 1960 outback drama “The Sundowners.”

Popular on Variety

Film Review: ‘Wide Open Sky’

Reviewed online, Adelaide, April 13, 2016. Running time: 82 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — Australia) An eOne Films Australia release of a Round the Outside Prods. production, in association with Screen NSW, Australian Broadcasting Corp., Screen Australia. (International sales: Round the Outside, Sydney.) Produced by Lisa Nicol, Anna Craney.

Crew: Directed by Lisa Nicol. Written by Nicol, Anna Craney. Camera (color, HD), Carolyn Constantine; editor, Craney; music supervisor, Gary Seeger; sound (stereo), Michael Gissing; indigenous consultant; Cathy Craigie.

With: Michelle Leonard, Opal, Mack, Khynan, Taylah, Katelyn, Ella, Alice Chance, Justin, Dot, Miss Nora.

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