thu 16/09/2021

Gleeful: The Real Show Choirs of America, E4 | reviews, news & interviews

Gleeful: The Real Show Choirs of America, E4

Gleeful: The Real Show Choirs of America, E4

An informative overview that's all shimmering surface but no depth

My excuse is that I was comfortably settled on the sofa next to my wife when the first episode of Glee aired, and I just got drawn in. I know, it’s not much of an excuse - and it hardly explains the fact that I then went on to watch the next 20 episodes - but there we are. And as a heterosexual middle-aged ex-punk rocker, I’m certainly not the obvious target demographic for this latest American television phenomenon, so perhaps I should explain further.
Glee is probably the most aptly named TV show ever devised, in that the dictionary defines “glee” as “open delight or pleasure; exultant joy; exultation”. But despite there being bucket loads of delight, joy and exultation exploding from the screen every week, it’s fortunately balanced by an equal amount of acidic wit and knowing cynicism. Plus, I had also convinced myself – at least up until I watched Gleeful: The Real Show Choirs of America – that all that over-the-top campness on campus simply wasn’t real. This was satire, so it was okay.

Glee is a clever have-its-cake-and-eat-it satire on the inexorable pull of showbiz and the American dream on the gullible young. The makers have shrewdly created a show which appeals to both the audience who enjoys it as just a schmaltzy sing-along soap opera in which a bunch of soppy kids perform revamped yet curiously sterile versions of show tunes and pop hits, past and present, and the audience who can’t wait for the next cringe-inducing put-down from the wonderfully reptilian Jane Lynch (who plays the vicious super-bitch coach of the cheerleading squad, Sue Sylvester). But Gleeful, God damn it, tells us that not only is it all horribly, horribly true, but it’s all true without the irony and crackling dialogue that makes Glee so compelling.

In this documentary’s real, unreal world of show choirs, the costumes are even more lavish, the rictus grins even wider, and there are even more pairs of unblinking eyes on the prize of a hoped-for career on stage and/or screen. This perkily (and sometimes, thankfully, flippantly) narrated film searched out some of the best show choirs in the States and interviewed the scarily focussed students and their tough but fair teachers, but rarely got below the surface. If only director Celia Wormley had spent more time investigating a possible darker side to all this desperate emoting and overwrought pizzazz. For example, only a couple of episodes ago, even Glee itself touched on the subject of raising unrealistic expectations amongst show choir members in regard to how unlikely it is that the majority of them will have any kind of future in show business once they leave school.


When one bright-eyed kid tells us that “Show choirs are a way of life”, you can’t help but wonder where that leaves them once they have graduated. Are there show choirs for adults? Is there a show choir recovery program? What becomes of these spotlight-addicted kids once they have failed countless auditions – not because they weren’t any good (they all seem to be of a stunningly professional standard) but simply because there are just way too many of them?  None of these questions were addressed. You also couldn’t help but wonder when they found time to do their actual academic school work, so intensive and professionally regimented did the rehearsals seem. But having said that, Show Choir is actually an academic subject in these schools, which begs the question; how useful is a degree in razzle-dazzle?

As the film went on it also became more and more clear that the show choirs themselves spectacularly endure and prosper (the camera would pan across a forest of trophies that a school has earned for shows with the production values of Broadway musicals) but the individuals who have sweated, hand-waggled and show-tune-bawled have had to leave all this behind. It can’t be easy to let go of all the applause, adrenalin and sheer pleasure of performing to thousands. The talented individual who auditions and becomes the one student in 10 who gets to join, say, the Rochester Athena High School Choir of New York, gets to join a choir that has performed at Disneyland, the Pentagon, the White House and the Vatican. Then there’s the John Burrough’s High School of California who employ five professional choreographers and charge each student $3000 a year in choir fees.

But this biggest of show-business dreams-come-true has built-in obsolescence, and that’s got to mess with these kids' heads far more even than having Simon Cowell tell them to go back to their day job. What would have made a far more interesting and moving film would have been to visit a cross-section of ex-students, a few years out of college, to see how life had panned out for them in the real world where they’ve become air hostesses or security guards. One final sobering fact that came to light was that the world’s first glee club - an all-male organisation that sung songs which were called “glees” - was formed in London in 1787. It was then another 70 years before Harvard University started the first American glee club (which still exists today).

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