Local film brings experimental technique to adolescent musical genre

"Chaza Show Choir"

Directed by Theresa Columbus and Didier Leplae

Plays at the Charles Theater on April 29

“Chaza Show Choir” is a cult film in almost every sense. At some level it feels like an old cult B movie; it is in many ways about a cult, or about cults, and the ways we come together around practices and beliefs; and it may well inspire cultish adoration. It’s as if the Werner Herzog of “Heart of Glass” (for which all the actors were hypnotized) teamed up with Guy Maddin, whose films create a post-modern version of black-and-white silent film aesthetic, to create an awkwardly throw-back black-and-white, strangely naive feature-film version of the television show “Glee.”

The film opens with a swinging, off-kilter, jazzy montage of the outside of a high school and then settles into an ethereal sitcom sound before cutting to the inside of the school, where a woman, looking straight at the camera, announces that the auditions for Chaza Show Choir were yesterday, and everyone is waiting for the principal, played by Stephanie Barber, to come and hang the results on the door of the high school auditorium. “Things are real real tense,” she says before a new song, which mixes awkward singing with the same deep, bass-heavy, oddly timed jazz groove: Who made Show Choir? Who made Orchestra?

All of the aspirants’ anticipatory musings are sung, or spoken in a singing cadence that comes across as ritualistic, which is why it reminds me of Herzog’s experiments with hypnotism. Social hierarchies start to emerge as the teens await, including a Montague/Capulet division between the orchestra and the show choir. “My voice is my instrument,” one singer taunts the musicians as the singers chant “orch dorks.” Oh, and there’s a mime, who everyone can agree to taunt—at least at first. Soon, they are all working together on their Chaza Show Choir number by practicing their shame aloud: “I thought Led Zeppelin was the lead singer of the Rolling Stones,” one guy says. “I feel asleep masturbating and the door was left ajar,” a woman adds.

Co-directors Theresa Columbus and Didier Leplae build in all of the tropes of the teen-scene movie—most notably in a hilarious series of split locker-room scenes that go back and forth between the girls and the boys in a “Grease” style alternating sex narrative—“I had so much sex,” one guy says; “really?” the other guys respond before chanting “sexy, sexy sexy, that sounds so sexy.” Soon they’re all in a kinetic singing and dance number about the encounter, “How many hours in the sexy time?” All of that is followed by an even funnier scene where the girls, in their underwear, narrate the things they hate—“I hate it when someone farts when you’re making out,” one says. “Or when someone farts in their sleep real, real slow”— in a saga of disgust that ends in a truly disturbing letter from “my friend Stephanie Barber,” which is a weird meta-sorta thing that puts Stephanie Barber, who acts in the film, in the film as herself—at least through a letter.

There’s a lot of plot as the Show Choir goes to Germany, expresses forbidden loves, gets trapped in a sausage factory, and work out new numbers. These sections suddenly seem to imbibe the DNA of the Beatles movies such as “A Hard Day’s Night” and the brilliant “Leningrad Cowboys Go America,” by Aki Kaurismäki.  But the really brilliant thing about this film, which is so hard to classify, is the way that it mixes the immediacy of the stage and live performance with the artifice of film to create something truly strange and moving. It is adolescence in a dream.

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