This uplifting motivational documentary from first time director Lisa Nichol sheds light on the state of music education in disadvantaged regions of outback Australia, where exposure to artistic pursuits is rare and sport is generally regarded as the main source of escapism from economic hardship.
The film focuses on Michelle Leonard, founder and director of Moorambilla children’s choir. She travels thousands of miles through rural New South Wales each year to audition and recruit school children with musical ability to join her project. The chosen participants are enrolled in a 3 day camp where they are pushed to realise and achieve their potential. The film follows this journey through to the stirring climax at the music festival in Coonamble where the children perform their repertoire as the headline act.
Wide Open Sky neatly captures the positive effect that music has on these kids and watching them progress via Michelle’s guidance is where the film has its most success. Kynhan, an aboriginal boy from Lightning Ridge is a delightful screen presence. Football mad and driven to be the best at everything he does, Kyh is full of humour and spirit and embodies the successful impact that the choir has on young lives. Also from Lightning Ridge, Mack has the voice of an angel and an avid interest in singing and dancing. He obviously doesn’t fit the mold of other boys his age in small town NSW. The choir gives him the outlet for self expression, a sense of inclusion and enables a growth in confidence which is truly touching to behold. The sequence where he dances on the rooftop of his humble abode is one of the most visually striking moments of the film.
There are some distinct flaws however. It fails to go into much depth about the social and economic depravity of the region. Despite claiming that these kids are disadvantaged, very little of this comes through on screen. They are all depicted as being from well rounded families and the lush cinematography by Carolyn Constantine gives the landscape an idyllic, aesthetically appealing hue which is at odds with the idea that they are from poor, desolate and uninspiring backgrounds. This somewhat dilutes the overall message of the film as you never really feel that the stakes are that high for the kids or that they are overcoming insurmountable odds to achieve their goals. The film is beautifully shot with occasional breathtaking shots of the land and is blessed with a lovely understated soundtrack from The Dirty Three, but it suffers from a plodding structure. The middle section is meandering and even at a paltry 80 minutes, it feels like it has been padded out to reach feature length. The climatic scene at the concert in Coonamble is a suitably rousing finale though. Well composed, craftily edited and powerfully conveyed, it’s a pity that the rest of the film doesn’t work quite so well.
A commendable and inspiring documentary nevertheless, Wide Open Sky conveys an important message about self empowerment and the realisation of dreams for children from all walks of life. It just lacks the depth, drama and gravitas to be truly compelling.