School of Bach – Mrs. Carey’s Concert review

Mrs. Carey’s Concert – Directed by Bob Connolly and Sophie Raymond. Rated PG. By Simon Miraudo.

Mrs. Carey’s Concert depicts the nine-month lead up to a daunting performance at the Sydney Opera House by a talented girl’s school orchestra and occasionally reluctant choir. I knew how they felt. Sure, I never played in front of a crowd the size of that found in the Opera House (it fits about 2500 people).  But as First Chair Clarinet in my primary school show band, I had spent plenty of moments standing nervously offstage, filled with both dread and delight as I prepared to perform for literally dozens of parents in the audience. Stop the applause, please; I’m no hero. We’ve all felt it, be it before a sporting match or cross-dressing comedy revue (or, as is common, a combination of the two). That sensation of boisterous butterflies in the belly is one I’ve rarely seen captured successfully on film, but co-directors Bob Connolly and Sophie Raymond pull it off in their latest documentary. Mrs. Carey’s Concert is a surprisingly affecting drama about struggles: the struggle between teachers and students; the conflict between why we create art, and how we go about creating it; the struggle to explain why we love the things we do, and do the things we do.

Our star is Karen Carey, a no bulls***  music teacher at the MLC School in New South Wales, whose time is devoted to the direction and encouragement of her 1200  students for the biennial concert at the Opera House. Carey’s star pupil has graduated, and a former-troublemaker with a grief-stricken past, Emily Sun, is asked to fill her rather large shoes. At first the teacher has no interest in her new violinist’s private life, but as the inarticulate young girl is continually asked to express her feelings behind the music she’s creating, the two of them realise that personality, pain and inspiration are intrinsically linked to the sorrowful strains of Emily’s instrument.

Don’t assume by that synopsis that Mrs. Carey’s Concert succumbs to the clichés of all music-movies before it. Every moment feels human and authentic, as well it should. The picture also avoids “false conflict”, the bane of many a music doco, in which drama is inserted by nervous directors who think their audience will be bored by realistic characterisation (example: Justin Bieber getting a cold before the big performance in Never Say Never). That being said, Mrs. Carey’s Concert also has a villain: an extremely manipulative and frighteningly self-aware bully named Iris Shi, whose complete disinterest in the concert, and her ability to get inside Carey’s brain, leads the teacher to suffer a crisis of confidence. But Shi is not reduced to being ‘the big bad’; she’s a teenage girl, and one with a good point. What if she just doesn’t feel the music? Sure, it can be transformative and life-saving for so many others, but not for her if she’s being forced to participate.

Emily expresses her frustration at being unable to describe what music means to her, with teachers wondering if her inarticulateness is representative of her lack of love for the medium. She responds in a private moment with the camera, saying the music she creates is how she feels about it; describing it with words would only do the art itself a disservice. Connolly and Raymond find the right balance in explaining why music affects us through the lives of these characters – wonderful teachers, funny and typically teenage students – and also picking the right moments, particularly in the shivers-up-your-spine finale, to sit back and let the music speak for itself.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Mrs. Carey’s Concert is now showing in select cinemas across Australia.

One Response to “School of Bach – Mrs. Carey’s Concert review”

  1. This film glorified a horrific example of music education and portrayed Karen Carey and her staff – all unashamed egotists – as heroes, when in fact their take on education is entirely soul-destroying and self-interested. The filmmakers’ portrayal of Iris Shi is absolutely disgusting when in reality she is perhaps the only person in this film who appears to properly understand how self-indulgent and misguided Mrs. Carey’s motives are. The filmmakers’ attempts to force such a contrived narrative out of the footage they collected was entirely transparent and pathetic. Please never make another movie again.

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