David Bowie and William Shakespeare form a duo in “Hunky Dory,” a film set in Wales in 1976 in which an adventurous teacher played by Minnie Driver gets her students to do a musical version of “The Tempest.” The Bard’s words remain rooted in the early 17th century; the music is vintage ’70s and ’60s — Bowie, ELO, Pink Floyd, Beach Boys and Nick Drake to name a few.
Director Marc Evans admitted it may be a bit of a circuitous route to get from one British master to the other, but he notes that the film “Forbidden Planet” was based on “The Tempest” and the Bowie, like “Forbidden Planet,” has an “otherworldly element.” Secondly, both Bowie’s works and “The Tempest” have gaps to allow the listener or viewer to fill in with their own imagination.
The film is set in 1976 in Wales during a drought. While the working class town has its usual assortment of woes and high-schoolers struggle with the meaning of romance, Driver’s character fights with teachers and the principal to stage “The Tempest” with a score that features Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” and “Life on Mars,” ELO’s “Strange Magic,” Rush’s “Passage to Bangkok,” the M.V.P.’s “Turning My Heartbeat Up” and the Turtles’ “Elenore.” It would have included the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs,” but that was the one song permission could not be secured.
“Bowie’s people thought that having two Bowie songs was right. We wanted ‘Memories of a Free Festival’ to close the film,” Evans told Billboard after the Saturday screening. “We went with Minnie singing the Byrds song (“Goin’ Back,” written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King). That’s a song that’s kind of epic and yet it’s very intimate.”
Evans and the producers had the film’s youth orchestra improvise passages while they were rehearsing the specific songs from sheet music to get a feel for what music would work best, he said. Working that way reminded him of a film project he did about a dozen years ago in which he brought John Cale to work with Welsh bands such as Manic Street Preachers and Super Furry Animals.
“When you’re filming,” he says, “the rehearsal is more interesting than the performance. There’s something about being sideways to the performance that makes it a different experience and I hope that intensity comes through. Sitting next to the musicians at a rehearsal was a real joy to me — sitting there and watching those kids play.”
Distribution has not been secured in the U.S., though “Hunky Dory” opened last week in the U.K. and Decca has released a soundtrack. At a Q&A, the team of Brits behind the film were asked if they were aware of another piece of entertainment that shows high schoolers working on musical productions. Yes, producer Dan Lupovitz said, they were aware of “Glee,” noting “Hunky Dory” originated before “Glee.”
“In the music area, we stressed authenticity over (perfection in) performance,” he said. “We tried to be as successful with what we do as they are successful with what they do.”
Lupovitz, Evans and male lead Aneurin Barnard, who plays a student, spoke about the importance of live music in the 1970s and how “Hunky Dory” set out to capture the magic of a performance rather than a studio creation.
“The beautiful thing is the music lives in the moment,” says Aneurin Barnard. “When you go to a school production there is never one where everyone has perfect pitch. The beauty of it is that it’s the truth.”
And while Evans’ dream is obviously to get the film into American cinemas, he has hopes for one final touch. “I really wanted to do a vinyl gatefold (album),” he said of the soundtrack, “but you don’t get to do those things anymore. It’s a small film. I hope people see the film, get into the music and it makes them go back to get the original track.”