By LISA NESSELSON
A portrait of sheer human decency in the face of adversity, “The Music in Me” profiles a dance group for physically and mentally disabled individuals in suburban Sydney. Nigel Traill, who directed, lensed and edited, has fashioned an intelligent, enormously affecting ode to raised expectations for people with disabilities. There’s not a condescending or saccharine frame in docu’s mix of daily drudgery and showbiz glitz, as it follows the six-week countdown to a rousing gala performance. It’s hard to imagine a halfway thoughtful TV programmer — or audience — that wouldn’t warm to the heartache and triumph captured here.
Frank, probing doc, which won the Pierre Salinger docu prize at its world prem in Avignon, reveals the demands of caring for a disabled family member, while depicting the challenges and rewards of artistic expression made possible by the 28-year-old nonprofit Merry Makers.
Down syndrome, Fragile X, autism and cerebral palsy are among the conditions evinced by Merry Makers’ 50 members, who dance and rehearse every Saturday with 15 able-bodied helpers scattered among them.
Talking-head interviews home in on the moment each parent or caregiver discovered their child had a major disability. The mix of initial sorrow and daily gumption is treated with matter-of-fact finesse.
In the 1970s, the late Rosemary Marriott had the idea that mentally handicapped children might respond favorably to music. Vintage footage of Rosemary and her charges in action is a delight.
Lovely young choreographer Lucinda Bryant, who helped out from the age of 12, inherited the job of putting the Merry Makers through their paces while she was still a teenager. Now 30, she’s an understanding but demanding taskmaster.
Lucinda’s mother, Janet Macfarlane, handles administrative duties for the group. Human billboards for the rewards of helping those less fortunate than oneself, mother and daughter are selfless and enthusiastic without a micron of pretension.
Distilled from some 100 hours of footage, docu highlights a few children and their parents, who are accepting and patient despite the unrelenting burden of caring for their charges.
Lovable “Beaver,” a grown man who lives with his mother June, suffers from Fragile X, making him an eternal youngster. Sam, who has Down syndrome, has made great strides according to his mother, Maria. Each Saturday after Merry Makers, Sam dresses up like Lucinda and relives the class. It’s slightly unnerving to watch, yet obviously therapeutic.
Intrepid Aida has two daughters with a degenerative condition and a life expectancy of perhaps 20 years. Merry Makers proves a highlight in both their lives.
Humbling, inspiring pic culminates with a gala featuring prominent singers and a full orchestra. For participants and spectators alike, the Merry Makers, dancing with precision to popular music, are contagious in their pure exuberance.
Camera (HD video), Traill; sound, Tim Little. Reviewed at Avignon Film Festival (competing), June 23, 2007. Running time: 61 MIN.