The film Hunky Dory is all about hazy sun kissed memories; whether you were there or not.
In the sweltering summer of 1976, unconventional teacher Vivienne (she doesn't seem to get a surname) is attempting to get pupils at the end of their school life to explore their hormonal emotions by producing a rock music version of The Tempest. That sounds like a bell bottomed Glee (complete with meticulous performances) but luckily it’s nothing of the sort. Director Marc Evans instead opts for an approach that means Hunky Dory is not a musical and all of the music is played and sung by the kids in a way that it would sound for real. Hence you have some mesmerising cover versions of 1970s songs by the likes of Cream, ELO and David Bowie performed with the charm you would expect if you were there. The singing is middling to good but always honest. In short, it makes for the sort of film you watch and feel as if it is somewhere in your memory rather than acted.
Hunky Dory has some similarity with the US film Dazed and Confused not least of which is that it is set at exactly the same time- end of the summer term 1976. It shares that film’s hazy sunlit look and natural performances. It also shares a refusal to utitlise clichéd movie tics to make emotional points instead allowing the cast and dialogue to do it unassisted by swirling strings or dramatic close ups. Plus there is a laziness that can only happen in a hot summer when nothing appears to be happening yet everything is.
Hunky Dory’s main story strands are not particularly original but are presented with a sort of down to earth feel that is much more how they are. It’s an ensemble piece so we drift from Davy’s awkward family life now his mum has left and his love for the disinterested Stella who has her eyes set on someone else, Evan’s feelings that “it may not be girls I like”, the three piece rock band one of whose members is secretly seeing the sister of another and Kenny,the play’s reluctant Caliban who is being coerced by his skinhead brother into more realistic violence. Above all that Viv’s struggles to get the play ready in time become the driver that pulls everyone together.
There are some very interesting diversions though. One surprising element is the headmaster, played with vigour by Robert Pugh. Far from cracking down as you might expect on Viv’s unconventional rehearsals he slowly becomes sucked into the process and despite his occasional reminder to her about “boundaries” there is something uplifting seeing him joining in. Viv herself is a fantastic character brought to energetic life by Minnie Driver with a note perfect Welsh accent. She is a powerhouse that holds the film together and gives it a warm, loveable feel yet she is never written or played as over sentimental; Evans always prefers the occasional silent moment to outpourings and the film is all the more effective for it.
The musical part of the film is amazing whether or not you know the songs. If you do the best of these is an unusual but highly enjoyable version of `The Man Who Sold The World` with the chorus shouted through a megaphone and pupils sweeping through the rehearsal hall. At the end a rousing `Living Thing` becomes a fanfare, not just for the play but the lives of the pupils themselves as they move on. A key plot point is the fact that close to the performance there is nowhere to hold the play so it ends up being performed outside. This seems a perfect setting for The Tempest anyway and the costumes are effective but remain the sort of things that could really have been made.
Hunky Dory is not perhaps a perfect film- Viv sometimes seems a little too much like the teacher we would all want who gets away with behaviour that she probably wouldn’t in real life. The period look is fine but you wonder whether, in 1976, people would remember five or six year old Bowie songs. The pace can be uneven- but the film is touching, interesting and shows how music is important at that age. It never strays into the melodramatic, always keeps its feet on the ground. Crucially at the end you feel like you know these characters and would be happy to spend more time with them.