Once In A Lullaby: The Story Of New York’s PS22 Chorus
Most die-hard Tori Amos fans (self included) have been well aware of the talents of the PS22 Chorus since 2007, when their leader, teacher Gregg Breinberg, shared videos of the fifth-graders performing Amos’ music. Mr. B., as he’s known to his students, is a Tori Amos fan himself, and the community took to the precocious and talented youth immediately. In my best hipster voice, I quipped, “I was listening to the PS22 Chorus before they were cool.”
After several years of meeting and performing for celebrities and viral videos on YouTube, Mr. B.’s chorus is a sensation. Fast-forward to 2010’s holiday concert at Public School 22 in Staten Island. This year’s chorus is about to perform, but little do they know that their lives are about to change even more than they already have.
Jonathan Kalafer’s documentary is a labour of love. A fellow educator and friend of Public School 22’s principal, Melissa Donath – “the unsung hero” of the chorus, Kalafer notes – the opportunity to finally launch a project on the chorus presented itself suddenly, as the Academy Awards came calling. With the official invitation to perform at the 2011 Oscars delivered by Anne Hathaway, Kalafer, Mr. B., Donath and the kids are off and running on a whirlwind adventure. From rehearsals through the trip to Hollywood, Kalafer follows the children through the trials and joys of a once in a lifetime experience.
While the core story itself – a fifth-grade children’s chorus preparing to perform on television at one of the most watched events of the year – is engaging enough for a documentary, Kalafer delves deeper into the lives of his subjects, bringing their humanity to the forefront. We are introduced to several of the children in great detail, exploring their lives beyond the rehearsal room. There is Mohamed, a boy with frenetic energy who has become more disciplined and focused through his time in chorus, and Denise, a talented vocalist who blows out her voice in her desire to represent the chorus with superstar quality. We also meet Azaria, a young girl with a troubled history who has found healing and confidence through the power of music, and smiles in spite of the pain she’s experienced. “Fairytales don’t always have a happy ending, do they? What happens after the story ends?” Azaria improvs, speaking from her heart and soul.
While the children are the YouTube and television stars, the true star of the documentary is Gregg Breinberg. More than a film about a magical moment, it is a visual treatise on what teaching should be, and the power teachers possess to transform the lives of students from all walks of life. Brimming with positivity and belief in his students, Breinberg elevates the chorus beyond performance and hitting the right notes. Music is a full-body experience, Breinberg insists, something that must be felt in every cell. Students like Azaria exemplify this lesson. But beyond this, Breinberg’s love of his students and refusal to put anything before their well-being is heartwarming and inspirational. Kalafer unobtrusively spotlights Mr. B’s teaching moments – math skills regarding “hug quotas”; communication and respecting others during a squabble between two boys; and belief in oneself as students break down in tears from fear and pressure. He encourages Denise as she struggles with a blown-out voice during a Disneyland performance, praising her professionalism for trying hard and rolling with the punches. He fights against the Oscar producers’ requests for the students to be still during their performance – “The reason they sound as good as they do, and the reason they perform as well as they do, is because they’re given that freedom,” Gregg explains – and tells the children to do as they ask during rehearsal, but “the night of the show, do as I say, and that’s our secret”. And it truly is their secret: it’s the secret of Breinberg’s success with the chorus year after year.
“If there’s a problem with the children, that comes before anything,” Breinberg declares, and through Kalafer’s lens, the veracity of that statement is never doubted.
Given the current economy and an era where arts funding is often the first thing on the chopping block, an era where social welfare is suddenly not a priority, children are growing up in increasingly challenging circumstances. The pressures of the media to be thinner, to look perfect, to wear the right clothes and do the cool thing, only add to the mountain of pressure to succeed. Teachers are stretched to their limits, juggling unrealistic class sizes with less funding for materials and less time to work individually with their charges. Once In A Lullaby should be mandatory viewing not only for children, but for teachers, principals and government officials responsible for decisions in education. It is a moving testament to the value of investing in children, and the crucial lessons the arts provide.
As someone with a troubled history who found healing through music, I have tremendous respect and admiration for Breinberg and Donath. If only every school possessed champions like these, the future would be very bright indeed. Perhaps Kalafer’s film is the first step towards that happy ending, that land heard of in the lullabies of ten-year-old children. After all, as Mr. B tells the children, “34 million people can’t be wrong.”