The story takes place in Georgia, at an all-white private boys’ boarding school called Blanton, in 1959. Blanton is famous for its boys’ choir. The candidates for the prestigious “lead boy” position in the choir include Paul, an angry, bigoted boy, and Taylor, who remonstrates mildly when Paul plays mean pranks on a Northern boy in an attempt to get him to leave.
Derek Saunders (Peter Scolari), a new choirmaster, arrives from Boston. And Landy, a black boy whose parents have died, arrives to live with his grandfather Zeke (Moses Gunn), a janitor at the school.
Landy is entranced by the choir music, as Taylor is by the blues and gospel he hears Landy play on his harmonica. They become friends, though Taylor betrays Landy by publicly belittling the death of another black boy. Derek appoints Taylor lead boy in the choir, even though he knows it will cost him his job at Blanton and the possible affections of the headmaster’s daughter. When Taylor is injured in a hate crime, he and Derek arrange for Landy to take his place as soloist for the performance.
The strength of this movie is that it does not begin to pretend the issues it raises can be (or were) resolved simply. Throughout the movie, the local black community tries, with increasing assertiveness, to be allowed to swim in the municipal pool. There is no resolution.
Landy may have been permitted to sing with the choir for one performance, but there is no suggestion he will ever be admitted as a student (or indeed ever be allowed on campus again). And Derek, faced with a choice between his conscience and his wish to remain at Blanton, makes Taylor lead boy and has to face the consequences.
It also shows nicely the power of music in the lives of Landy and Taylor. They share something transcending their differences. Love for music makes Landy risk not being “invisible” so he can hear the choir rehearsal. Love for music makes Taylor take the risk of breaking the rules by leaving school to go to hear it played, even though he will be the only white person there. Derek criticizes the choir for concentrating too much on technical perfection, and not enough on feeling the composer’s exaltation and passion. And he tells Taylor boys should risk breaking the rules and get away from school once in a while.
The movie makes it clear that Paul’s bigotry and hostility are in part displaced emotions stemming from his parents’ neglect. One of his roommates says, after another in a series of visiting days when Paul’s parents are the only ones who don’t attend, “I wish he’d get mad at them instead of us.”
Parents should know that the movie includes an offscreen death and racial intimidation and violence, including strong racist language. A boy smokes a cigarette.
Families who see this movie should talk Landy’s grandfather saying that he has lasted as long as he has at the school by “being invisible.” What does that mean? What do you learn from the way the boys talk to Derek about the Civil War? Why do they have different views? If they were taught to believe one thing and he was taught another, how do you know which is right? Why does Taylor call the boy who died “some stupid kid”? Listen carefully to the music in this movie. Do the songs they sing relate to the story at all?
Families who enjoy this movie should note musician Richie Havens as “Scrapper Johnson,” a blues musician who appears at a fund-raiser to rebuild the church after it is bombed by racists. Another movie about a boys’ choir is Almost Angels.