'Gay Chorus Deep South': Film Review | Tribeca 2019

Tribeca Film Festival
Musical journey misses some of the high notes.

This doc recounts a concert tour by members of the Gay Men's Chorus of San Francisco to several Southern states with restrictive anti-gay laws.

A very intriguing and timely drama about a divided America received its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Gay Chorus Deep South tells a poignant story indicated in the film’s title. The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus decided to bring their music to a number of Southern states that retain the most restrictive anti-gay laws in the country. Obviously the musicians’ hope was that they might build a few bridges. The doc has stirring moments, but it has too many gaps to be considered a complete success. It will be a gay festival favorite and might find a home on public television.

Two of the leaders of the chorus, the artistic director and the CEO, both hail from the South and envisioned the tour as a homecoming as well as a way to come to terms with the prejudice and hostility they faced while growing up. They were able to arrange performances in the states they visited, including a climactic concert at a Southern Baptist mega-church in South Carolina. Along the way they were joined by the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, a predominantly black chorus that also includes a number of gay singers. A scene of the chorus members crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Alabama resonates for two oppressed groups.

The musical performances are well captured by writer-director David Charles Rodrigues. And there are some revealing human moments along the journey. But in telling the personal stories, the film sometimes falters. With some 300 singers performing, it was obviously not possible to incorporate too many of these individual stories. One that is included, about singer Jimmy White, is most telling. Jimmy had not seen his disapproving father for half a dozen years, but Jimmy’s stepmother persuaded her husband to attend the concert in Mississippi, and there is a muted but still poignant reconciliation between father and son.

The documentary cries out for more interludes like that one. It spends a good deal of time with artistic director Tim Seelig, who was a Southern Baptist minister married with two children before he was expelled from the church for acknowledging his homosexuality. But this story is less illuminating than the filmmakers realize. Tim is a bitter man, partly because he was prevented from seeing his children after he came out. But since this subject is raised, we would like more background to learn if he tried to contact his family in later years and how they reacted. Without this information, Tim’s attitude seems a bit strident and really takes up too much time during this doc.

There are a couple of other potentially interesting characters, including a trans woman who works with the ACLU, but the film fails to provide enough sharp details. And it cries out for deeper characterizations. Gay Chorus Deep South is, however, handsomely made and evokes settings in the South that many urban folks would never encounter. Although music can help to bridge some of the gaps between two Americas, we are reminded that there is still a long way to travel before the culture wars of the last decade will ever be fully healed.

Director-screenwriter: David Charles Rodrigues
Producers: Bud Johnston, Jesse Moss
Executive producers: James Goode, Tony Hogqvist
Director of photography: Adam Hobbs
Art director: Melinda Gorham
Editor: Jeff Gilbert
Music: Bryan Senti
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Movies Plus)
Sales: Endeavor Content

100 minutes