There are perhaps more subtle ways to convey a character's success in music than by gliding over a magazine cover heralding him as the "World's Greatest Conductor," but The Chorus, a remake of 1945's La Cage Aux Rossignols, has little use for subtlety. It's a plucky-teacher-inspires-miscreant-pupils would-be tearjerker in the classic mold that scored big at the box-office in its native France.
The film opens with the aforementioned World's Greatest Conductor (Jacques Perrin) receiving the news that his beloved mother is dead. This prompts first a single perfect tear, then a visit by an old schoolmate, which in turn inspires a nearly film-long flashback to Perrin's days as a rebellious student at an authoritarian boarding school. The school is a lot like prison, but the place brightens considerably when a failed musician with unfulfilled creative ambitions (Gérard Jugnot) enters its gates and turns a hardscrabble assortment of delinquents and ruffians into a top-flight choir. Over the course of numerous montage sequences, these angels with dirty faces are transformed into beaming, radiant songbirds. Even the school's sadistic principal (François Berléand) gets into the carefree spirit, getting up on his desk (shades of Dead Poets Society) and flinging a paper airplane. Alas, Berléand turns out to be a boss from the arbitrary, manic-depressive school of management: ecstatic one moment, but apoplectic and eager to fire the next.
The Chorus throws together so many crowd-pleasing elements—an adorable orphan perpetually waiting for a visit from his dead father, the soaring music of a magnificent boys' choir, wistful narration, a built-in happy ending, a lovable teacher triumphing over institutional drudgery—that it's almost shocking how little effect its shamelessness has. Jugnot gives a warm, nicely understated performance as a teacher who handles the boys' cruel pranks with patience and good humor, but he's surrounded by types rather than characters. Jean-Baptiste Maunier—in a pivotal role as the young Perrin, the standout vocalist in Jugnot's choir—possesses brooding intensity and wonderfully expressive eyes, which makes it all the more unfortunate that his character never amounts to anything more than a voice and a bright future. The Chorus plucks desperately at the heartstrings, but fails to breathe new life into a tired old tune.