Staten Island’s PS22 Chorus isn’t your normal elementary school extracurricular group. Though the name might not immediately ring a bell, chances are you’ve heard some of their work—or at least heard someone rave about “that amazing elementary school chorus with all the songs on YouTube.” A certified viral sensation after chorus director Gregg Breinberg started posting their performances—of songs by artists like Adele, Coldplay and Lady Gaga—online, celebrities and musicians aplenty have visited the chorus to show their support. And in late 2010 they had a particularly special visitor: Actress (and Oscar co-host) Anne Hathaway, there to invite the chorus to perform at the 2011 Academy Awards.
As much of an underdog story as the PS22 Chorus’ road to the Oscars is, quite a different underdog story was taking place behind the camera courtesy of director Jonathan Kalafer. A teacher and moviemaker with an interest in arts education, the subject of Once in a Lullaby: The PS22 Chorus Story was the perfect fit for Kalafer’s feature documentary debut. But the course of a documentarian never did run smooth, and Kalafer found himself having to start production with practically no time to prepare (a fact about which he is amazingly positive: “I think not having any time for pre-production forced us to stay where the story was.”) while also suffering from a trio of tick-borne illnesses that caused “swelling in my cerebellum and heart complications… it was hard enough just to do my daily routine.”
So while the film itself is incredibly uplifting, so too has been its journey to the Tribeca Film Festival, where it’s having its world premiere today, April 29th. Kalafer took the time to chat with MovieMaker about his experience filming the PS22’s Chorus incredible journey—and the personal impact doing so had on him.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): How did you first hear about the PS22 Chorus? What about them and their story made you want to direct your first feature documentary?
Jonathan Kalafer (JK): Aside from being a filmmaker, I am also a public school teacher who uses new media in some of the same ways as PS22 Chorus director Gregg Breinberg. I also happen to be close friends the principal of PS22, Melissa Donath. As friends in the same profession, we often talk shop. She would always ask me about the things I do in my classroom and made me aware of what Gregg was doing. So I have had a behind-the-scenes perspective on the PS22 Chorus almost from the beginning.
Like millions of other people, I was hooked on the PS22 Chorus from the first YouTube video. However, as a documentary filmmaker I could’t watch something so powerful, particularly something so visually and sonically rich, without thinking about doing a documentary about it. Besides being wonderful material to work with aesthetically, I saw this as an opportunity to combine my three greatest loves outside my family: Documentary, education and music. I was also very attracted to the fact that PS22 Chorus has such a powerfully uplifting effect on viewers. I wanted to translate that into a feature length documentary.
MM: At what point in PS22’s story did you begin shooting? Was it after the Academy approached Mr. Breinberg about the Oscars? What was the pre-production process like?
JK: Yes. The film chronicles the 2010/11 chorus from their annual Holiday Concert, where actress Anne Hathaway invites them to perform at the 83rd Annual Academy Awards, [and then] follows them through the end of that school year. Besides being an incredibly exciting opportunity for a narrative arc, this also created a good atmosphere for getting permission from New York City public schools. Of course, they had a lot of conditions and they thoroughly vetted us, but it felt like that was really the right time for a variety of reasons.
Unfortunately, because of this we didn’t get to have a proper pre-production phase for the film, and it feels like I am still playing catch-up because of it!
MM: What was the biggest challenge you faced during production?
JK: The biggest challenge was the fact that when we began shooting I was very ill with tick-borne illness. My love of camping and hiking (and also possibly shooting my short documentary We Love You in the wilds of Wyoming) had exposed me to Lyme disease, Babesia and Bartonella. I had swelling in my cerebellum and heart complications, and it was hard enough just to do my daily routine. However, PS22’s music is so powerfully inspiring, and it had an incredibly healing effect on me. The music definitely kept me going through the shoots, and I always wrapped feeling better than when I started.
I feel it is important to raise awareness about these diseases. The medical establishment is doing a very poor job at diagnosing and treating them, and there are a lot of people suffering because of this. There is a documentary called Under Our Skin, which does a good job of educating about these illnesses. Most people have heard of Lyme disease, but Bartonella and Babesia are even more dangerous and are still widely unknown.
MM: What are some of the reactions you’ve gotten from people who have seen the film so far, and what do you hope audiences as a whole will take away from it? Have Mr. Breinberg and the kids seen it yet?
JK: We just finished the film last week, so we haven’t had too many eyes on it yet, but so far reactions have been very good. A lot of people are so touched they cry at a couple of points in the film, and I feel I am getting the “powerfully uplifting” effect that I was going for. A lot of the press that have seen even the rough cut have told me they expected to watch just a little bit but ended up watching straight through to the end.
Mr B. has seen it, and he paid me the highest compliment when he said I captured the “soul” of the chorus. It was very fun watching him watch it. We are setting up a screening for the chorus kids this week, and I am really looking forward to that.
I hope that this film brings the viewer closer to the magic that is PS22 Chorus. If along the way I can help people remember the almost intangible power of arts education and what an excellent teacher looks like, I’ll be extra happy.
MM: The story of a school choir that’s invited to perform at the Oscars gives Once in a Lullaby more of a structured narrative through-line than a lot of documentaries have; there’s a definite beginning, middle and end. It’s hard to imagine that the story would have turned out any other way, but that said, documentary-making is an unpredictable process. Is the film you ended up with more or less the one you thought you’d have when you started?
JK: Yes. Although it didn’t really crystalize until I saw the first assembly, my vision stayed pretty consistent from the beginning. We were very blessed with this amazing action-driven narrative arc. But as you said, making docs is an unpredictable process, so I tried to keep an open mind. In a way, I think not having any time for pre-production forced us to stay where the story was. There was something about the similarities between their adventure to the Oscars and the storyline from The Wizard of Oz, where their performance number “Over the Rainbow” came from, that really resonated with me.
I felt really strongly from the beginning that since this was a documentary about kids I wanted it to be appropriate and even engaging for children in every possible way. I am really pleased that we were able to make a doc that I feel can be enjoyed by nine-year-olds as well as adults.
MM: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
JK: I’d just like to add that, although Gregg Breinberg and the PS22 Chorus truly are exceptional, there are amazing things happening in schools all over the country. Most teachers never have their work spotlighted in the way that Greg Breinberg has, but it doesn’t make every lesson they teach a child any less important, and it doesn’t make their work any less magnificent.