Film: Nicely done ‘Unfinished Song’

Unfinished Song is a film we mentioned in June, when it arrived in selected SoCal theaters, but it wasn’t widely distributed, and chances are, you missed it.  Now that it’s out on disc and streaming, it’s a good time to catch up.

The glorious Vanessa Redgrave is Marion, a woman very ill, but still somehow full of life, and singing is an important part of her life: her local choir is where she see her friends, lives through music, and gets some respite from dealing with doctors and sickbeds.  In deference to Marian, Redgrave is more frail here than what we’ve come to expect from her, but her grace and natural beauty are more striking every year, even with no makeup and hair cropped very short.  The bright smile and blue eyes sparkle, and she’s a tough chick — just what many of us want to be when we grow up.

Arthur, Marion’s husband, is played by Terence Stamp, who shows us a curmudgeon who is almost consumed with concern for the health of his wife.  He obviously loves her deeply, probably because she gets him, and loves him back, in spite of his confirmed tenure as a sourpuss.  Christopher Eccleston plays their son, a local mechanic, in a finely shaded portrayal of a strong, sensitive man caught between the two very different personalities that produced him.  He looks convincingly like he could be the real son of Stamp and Redgrave, but his appearance is just one reason he’s perfect for the part. The resemblance simply makes his connection to both of them all the more poignant.

The relationship between husband and wife is the center of the story:  when Marion takes a serious turn for the worse, causing Arthur to “ground” her at home in his anxiety, she’ll have none of it:

“…and you will take me to singing!  If you don’t, I will not utter a single word to you until you do.” 

Witnessing his punishment, watching him try to get her to talk when she’s still so angry, is both heartbreaking and hilarious — particularly the little smile we see on her turned-away face when he finally relents.

As we see Arthur’s attitudes toward the choir gradually soften, we witness the profound transformation of a man who was once something else — he’s coming home. It is like watching a wound heal, and is just as miraculous. This is not, of course, the first time Stamp has sung onscreen: in an astonishingly varied, 50-year career, his 1994 performance in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert remains one of his most indelible. His voice has aged, of course, but he and Redgrave each offer up beautifully executed, simply sung and heartfelt solos that will stay with you.

There is no doubt this is Stamp’s movie, but the other performances, including several of those from within the chorus, are vibrant and engaging.  Snappy dialogue helps to build strong, intelligent characters, both between the two principals and among the members of the community choir.  These are lively, even salty people, singing pop songs and hip-hop with vigor and enthusiasm.  They don’t shy away from sex or death or playing tricks on each other (leaving one briefly napping gentleman wearing a big smear of lipstick throughout a rehearsal).  They’re really more like a group of kids than doddering pensioners.

And that’s the point — music can be the vehicle through which people rediscover themselves, and this film uses inventive arrangements and ballsy choreography to turn a group of very different people into a harmonizing ensemble, creating unique and inspiring moments that everyone can enjoy. The heavy metal coaching session is a major highlight, making it clear that the choir’s director, played by the charming Gemma Arterton, not only knows what she’s doing, she truly cares about her choir members, and wants them to do a job they can be proud of. She expects them to work hard, hone their performance, and work together.  It works, and the results are stunning.

This is the power of choral music, in all its forms: pro, semi-pro or community status doesn’t matter much when considering the essential value of the program.  Voices in the film are generally natural, untrained, and brought together by smart leadership and ingenuity.  The results may not be as polished as what we’re used to hearing as professionals, or indeed, even as heard from some of the other choirs featured in the story.  But because their hard work produces something heartfelt and unique, the results have deep impact.

In an effort to avoid too many spoilers, we won’t reveal more details here.  But the film succeeds as an inspirational boost, with the bonus of rich storytelling that will make you think and leave your foot tapping.  This movie is just as good as Quartet, the film that came out nearly simultaneously and was significantly more successful.  The timing that left its release to follow that of Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut was unfortunate, giving Unfinished Song a tough row to hoe when it arrived in American theaters.  The marketing made this film appear sunnier than it actually is, which can backfire once people start seeing it, cutting buzz short. The flower-strewn poster and tag line, “Music is the cure for the common crank”, don’t hint at the deeply human themes and dark realities that are also part of the experience.  This is not stock comedy.  But if you can sit down and embrace the story for its own sake, it pays off admirably.

Being a working musician may sometimes feel like a grind, when the effort to survive a busy, call-filled week may obscure the joy of doing what we do.  Films like this can be a tonic, leaving you ready for the next artistic challenge, and geared up to share that joy with someone else.  Start by making some popcorn and sharing this film with a friend.

Here’s the official trailer:

Also available on DVD

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