'We Did It on a Song' ('Chante ton bac d'abord'): Film Review

Courtesy of Bodega Films
French students sing their way through final exams in this touching musical documentary

Director David Andre's hybrid feature was broadcast on French TV before rolling out theatrically

Glee meets To Be and To Have is perhaps the best way to describe We Did It on a Song (Chante ton bac d’abord), a hybrid French docudrama-musical comedy about five high school students who sing their way through senior year. Shot in the distressed seaside town of Boulogne-sur-Mer (the setting of the Alain Resnais classic Muriel), this touching yearlong chronicle by filmmaker David Andre mixes the hard facts of growing up with several showstopping numbers that were written and performed by the stars themselves. It’s a risky gamble that mostly pays off, even if the realities depicted are ultimately more convincing than all the attempts at music and lyrics.

Released in late October on local screens after airing on co-producing network France 2, Song should see a few pickups in Francophone territories, while overseas action could include doc fests and film weeks. (All of which would be better off using the movie’s original-language title, which is a pun on a popular French expression that translates to: “Graduate first.” It’s also the name of a terrific 1978 film by Maurice Pialat.)

In France, students in their last year of high school are faced with two major challenges: applying to college and passing the baccalaureat exam, a cumulative test in different subjects that requires many months of preparation. Tracking five such pupils from September through June as they plan their futures and get ready for finals, Andre reveals the ups and downs of 17-year-old Gallic life, though he does it by introducing a slew of song-and-dance numbers that the kids stage throughout the film.

Narrated by the photogenic Gaelle Bridoux, who defies her father’s wishes by applying to art school, the story follows your typical teenage follies and foibles — even if the distinct setting reveals a recurring pattern among the characters: With few job prospects in their economically strained hometown, most of them have no choice but to move elsewhere, leaving their friends and parents behind for good.

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Gaelle’s best buds include fellow artist Rachel Motte and her brooding, Bob Dylan-esque boyfriend Nicolas Dourdin; as well as the pierced and punked-up Alex Margolle, who plays in a band with his working-class dad (the two look like the forgotten French members of Anthrax, though the music they perform sounds more like amped-up regional folk). There’s also Alex’s girlfriend, Caroline Brimeux, who has no clear career goals and whose parents are facing their own share of problems.

While the film’s portrait of contemporary rural France feels entirely apt and sadly, far from encouraging, the director’s decision to insert a series of original songs — composed by Nicolas Weil, Sylvain Ohrel and Alexandre Lier, with lyrics by Andre and the students — definitely enhances the originality level, even if the numbers themselves are not all that convincing and sometimes poorly recorded. And unlike Glee, which mixes up show tunes with pop and hip-hop classics, the music is strictly of the chanson francaise variety: extremely illustrative and not exactly refreshing.

Still, We Did It on a Song deserves extra credit for trying to pull off something new amid the rather homogenous landscape of French documentaries, while the film’s pro tech package — including swooping Hollywood crane shots by director of photography Thibault Delavigne — gives it a sheen that contrasts with all the grim surroundings. In the end, Andre orchestrates a moving portrait of several youngsters who define themselves by their acts (in all senses of the term), rather than by where they come from.

Production company: Brotherfilms
Cast: Gaelle Bridoux, Nicolas Dourdin, Rachel Motte, Caroline Brimeux, Alex Margolle, Alice Dutertre
Director: David Andre
Producer: Emmanuel Francois
Director of photography: Thibault Delavigne
Editor: Bruno Joucla
Composers: Nicolas Weil, Sylvain Ohrel, Alexandre Lier, with the participation of Gregoire Hetzel

Sales: Brotherfilms

No MPAA rating, 82 minutes