Two popular genres come together in this Australian documentary – the backstage musical and the inspirational-teacher-saves-troubled-students drama. Karen Carey is the music director at the Sydney girls school MLC, which holds a concert involving 1200 girls from the school at the Sydney Opera House every two years. The next concert is approaching and Mrs Carey’s Concert documents the challenges that lie ahead, especially in terms of involving reluctant, difficult and under confident students.
The fly-on-the-wall approach taken by directors Bob Connolly and Sophie Raymond recalls the approach taken by Nicolas Philibert in his 2006 film To Be and to Have about a primary school class in rural France. Similarly, Mrs Carey’s Concert conveys an enormous amount of information about its subjects simply through observation and strategic editing. During the climax of the film, which of course is the concert, cutaway shots to the faces of key players in the film communicate everything that the audience needs to know about what the various moments mean to them. This graceful and unobtrusive editing creates a work that feels authentic and non-judgemental.
The two dominant stories that emerge are those of ‘problem’ students, Iris Shi and Emily Sun. In Iris’s case she is extraordinarily extroverted and precociously disruptive, to the point of being infuriating. Over the course of the film we see the teachers gently but firmly appeal to her better nature and their patience is remarkable, as is how well they conceal just how much in charge of the situation they are. By the time Iris is telling the camera how well she reads people in order to manipulate them, her bravado feels overcompensated to the point that she becomes a strangely sympathetic figure. There is something ultimately sad about her.
Emily is a different challenge for the staff. While her troubled past is mostly behind her, and only mentioned in the film rather than shown, she severely lacks the passion and confidence to reach her true potential as a gifted musician. Her journey is the most rewarding in the film as the focus is not on her musical talent – that is taken as a given – but on her ability to find the inner strength and emotional investment to be truly great. The full extent of her back-story is strategically revealed late in the film to put her tentativeness into context and watching her transformation is extremely rewarding. One scene involves her having to tell the orchestra what a particular piece of music means to her. For a brief moment she lets down her guard to describe how she feels, before catching herself out and retreating back inside herself again. Such moments are what define Mrs Carey’s Concert as being more than simply a documentary about privileged schoolgirls putting on a concert.
Like the payoff at the end of the fiction film The Concert, Mrs Carey’s Concert delivers an emotionally charged and satisfying experience. The sound mix allows the music to really surround the viewer and interestingly any voiceovers removed from what is on screen at the time come from the back speakers so that the immediate story remains in the foreground. It is also worth watching the end credits through to the very end as the final music wonderfully sums up what the film has been about and is also rather sweet.