It is the summer of 1976 in South Wales, and drama teacher Viv (Minnie Driver) is putting her heart and soul into an unusual school production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which the students can include pop songs of the time to express themselves.
With teenage angst at every corner, and impressively energetic song and dance routines, this really does seem to be the indie version of Glee. While there are a great many resemblances to the show, Hunky Dory makes for a more enjoyable watch; largely because of the soundtrack. All the songs are covers of classic pop songs from the 70’s, including The Who, The Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, and a brilliantly glamorous performance of David Bowie’s song Life on Mars (a track off the record Hunky Dory, from which the film takes its name). Not only are the young cast all immensely talented singers, in particular the focal student Davey, played by Aneurin Barnard, but there was also not a bad performance to be seen.
Anything set in the 70’s is going to be inherently a bit grim. The poor were poorer, and work was harder to come by; but at least the music was good. While this darkness is addressed – largely through Davey’s home life – director Mark Evans still seems to be presenting Hunky Dory as a love letter to the era. Every frame, be it of a field or an industrial estate, is beautifully lit and framed, with a colour palette weighted heavily toward orange, yellow and brown. Most of the scenes seem to take place on a gloriously sunny afternoon in Swansea. This isn’t a bad thing, indeed Evan’s passion for the era is clearly the driving force behind it, and many sequences seem almost anecdotal. The light humour, be it from the snapping between the liberal Viv and her rather more conservative colleagues, or the banter between students, ensures that the film doesn’t get too bogged down in misery.
For all its great songs and nostalgia however, Hunky Dory does have one major flaw (one which it shares with Glee). There are simply too many characters to keep up with. Firstly, there’s Viv, who seems to be the central character, struggling to get the students over there apathy and self-obsession to put on a show they’ll be proud of. Then there’s Davey, a student who, having been rejected by a crush, becomes a bit weird and obsessive over his drama teacher. While it makes sense to have a student’s perspective as well as a teachers, Davey’s story only gets about as much time as those of the other pupils; the troubled skinhead, the lovable music geek, the guy who gets off with his best friends sister, the closet homosexual, Davey’s runaway brother, and the interracial relationship to name a few. All of them are quite complex and tricky, but they never really inter-relate, nor do many of them have any sort of resolution or catharsis. All we get is a strange set of epilogues for each character just before the credits (including a surprisingly miserable end for one of the students).
Despite the technical flaws, Hunky Dory remains an enjoyable, feel-good film which shows Glee how nostalgic stage-covers of old pop songs are REALLY done.
Platform rating: 6/10