The idea behind Hunky Dory isn’t bad. Set in 1976 in a Welsh seaside town, the movie follows a group of high-school drama students working on their last show of the summer term under the direction of rebellious, demanding teacher Minnie Driver. She’s aiming to reinvent Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a musical, using contemporary rock ’n’ roll songs, but she’s having trouble with disapproving parents, intra-cast romantic woes, and the usual teenage scatterbrained-ness, all exacerbated by the heady atmosphere of an age thick with drugs and social conflict. There’s a bit of Fame and Glee about the film, a bit of Dazed And Confused, and a bit of Gregory’s Girl (albeit with a Welsh accent instead of Scottish).
But director Marc Evans and screenwriter Laurence Coriat fumble both the musical side of their movie and the coming-of-age side. The characters fall too neatly into the standard teen-movie slots: the inspiring teacher, her jaded peers, her troubled students. And Evans doesn’t do near enough with the musical performances. Outside of a couple of well-staged numbers at the end, most of the songs happen in the context of rehearsal, and though the material is good—The Byrds’ “Everybody’s Been Burned,” Nick Drake’s “Cello Song,” ELO’s “Strange Magic,” and more—they’re shot without style, and rarely do they illuminate either The Tempest or these kids. About halfway through the film, the cast dances around to a version of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” that shows some verve, but otherwise, the songs are mostly inert.
Evans’ actors are strong—especially Driver, whose seamlessly fuses her character’s nurturing and reckless sides, while never losing her movie-star spark—and Hunky Dory is largely unobjectionable and good-hearted. But it’s too broad in both its humor and its melodrama, and there are so many narrative threads that none of them aside from Driver’s really get their due. The best subplot features Darren Evans as a racist skinhead’s sensitive younger brother, torn between running with the gang and expressing his outsiderdom through the part of Caliban. A more focused Hunky Dory could’ve said all it means to say through Evans. Instead he’s just another ingredient, mixed into the mush.