Hunky Dory will inevitably draw comparisons to Glee, but only because they both feature paper-thin teenage characters singing about their feelings. Not every teenage character in movies and television needs to go through something profound, but we still need to get wrapped up in their mess of emotions, or at least be transported back to when we shared their feelings. Director Marc Evans and screenwriter Laurence Coriat spread their story too thin by trying to give arcs to too many of the teenage characters. In addition, the movie also has to spend time with their inspirational teacher, Ms. May (Minnie Driver), and see what’s happening in her life. The film owes more to American Graffiti than Glee, but it’s only at the end when Hunky Dory stands apart and does something powerful and original.
In 1976 South Wales, arts teacher Vivienne May is trying to do The Tempest as a rock musical with her school’s students. An outsider among the closed-minded faculty, Vivienne encourages her students to use rehearsal as a way to explore their emotions. The desire to put on a kick-ass musical and letting teenagers indulge their feelings tends to work at cross-purposes as the kids’ personal issues seem to have at least one pupil storming out of every rehearsal. As Vivienne fights to defend her program, her students struggle with young love, sexuality, and friendship.
There’s nothing wrong with having teenagers deal with these issues, and there’s strong dramatic material in watching young people struggle with their problems. The teens in Hunky Dory never come off as whiny or conceited, but their individual problems dominate their personalities. One student struggles with his homosexuality, but that’s all we know about him. He’s is defined not by his personality, but by his conflict. It’s an arc without much of a character, and it’s a problem that extends to almost everyone in the film. Driver has a bit more room to show Vivienne’s frustrations, hopes, and fears, but her co-stars simply don’t have the screen time to stretch beyond the immediate reaction to their one predicament (or in the case of Vivenne’s student, Davey (Aneurin Barnard), two predicaments).
That’s a shame because some of the young cast, particularly Barnard, showed great potential to create compelling characters had they been given more room to do so. Thankfully, the movie does give them time to sing their songs, and the cast’s vocal talents far exceed the majority of Glee‘s company. Rather than try to belt out every single tune, the teenage performers in Hunky Dory exercise restraint and play to the emotion of the song. The film makes the tired move of only using well-known songs (e.g. David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World”) rather than deep cuts, but at least the music sounds fresh coming from Hunky Dory‘s young stars.
At the end, those stars finally get a chance to shine when they put on their musical. The impact is slightly diminished since the musical can’t provide grand catharsis to what felt like minor conflicts, but the concept and execution of Vivienne’s Tempest is superb. The musical couldn’t work on its own if we didn’t know the kids, but the staging, arrangements, costumes, and performances within the play are better than anything that came before. It’s also a completely unexpected reveal since we never see anything other than the songs until the show.
Hunky Dory has some great performances and worthwhile stories, but they’re constantly pushed aside as the Evans relies on far too many clichés and safe havens. There’s the inspirational teacher, the cartoonish “Those kids will never amount to anything!” colleague, and too many subplots. It’s only in the rare moments when Evans breaks free from these shackles that Hunky Dory feels like more than a forgettable imitation.
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