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'I'm trying to make a film that stands out in the marketplace - a very crowded marketplace. (Ken Woroner)
'I'm trying to make a film that stands out in the marketplace - a very crowded marketplace. (Ken Woroner)

On the set of a hockey film

They shoot! They score! They sing! Add to ...

You guys are angry," encourages the director, "you guys are fighting … annnddd action!"

I went to a hockey game, and a song and dance broke out. Badda bing, badda boom? Not so fast. Score: A Hockey Musical, a star-powered Canadian film featuring Olivia Newton-John and Nelly Furtado, among others, has just wrapped up principal photography in Toronto. And if the thought of combining 1980s pop icon Newton-John and rotating Zambonis conjures corny images of Xanadu on Ice, think again. The film's producers want the musical to set the gold-medal standard of shinny stories.

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I was there as a key film shoot took place at Weston Arena, a charming old hockey barn in the north end of the city, where bundled-up production assistants shuffled on ice, doling out hot sandwiches and coffee. During a key scene in which a pregame skate by opposing hockey squads erupts into a melee of brawling and ballroom dancing on ice, the movie's tension of pacifism versus pugilism plays out to a waltzing and whimsical rock score.

A huge banner on one end of the rink extols a puck-headed philosophy, "Hockey is air, hockey is water - hockey is life."

Hockey (and music) is what Score is all about. The star is newcomer Noah Reid, a singing actor comfortable on blades. He's teenager Farley, the son of hippie-intellectual parents (played by singer-songwriter Marc Jordan and Newton-John) who shelter him. Their boy was home-schooled, fed with organic food, and pushed toward high-brow pursuits.

Farley is an untapped phenom as a hockey player; his superb slap shots and sublime skating happen only during loosely organized games of shinny. Eventually, a coach - Stephen McHattie, the Pontypool actor, has the whistle and clipboard here - signs Farley to play in a major league that expects its skaters and shooters to duke it out, too.

The dilemma is a plot point, just as it was in hockey films Youngblood and Slap Shot. "Violence in sport?" melodically lilts Farley, before the belligerent ballet. "Isn't this supposed to be fun?" To which his coach lyrically replies in same, "The boys are letting off steam, they're not hurting anyone."

That couplet comes from the film's writer-director Michael McGowan, whose 2009 art-house hit One Week featured a Canadian indie-band soundtrack.

Like 26 million other Canadians, he watched the recent Olympic hockey matches - games fluidly conducted without fisticuffs, and generally considered the better for it. "It was purely about the narrative of the game," he says on set, during a break in shooting.

"I don't think we need fighting in there. However, in no way shape or form is this movie supposed to be a diatribe on fighting."

Things have gone well for McGowan and crew during the 25-day shoot. The only scrapping he's done is the fight for ice time - a precious commodity, which is why the rink-set shooting starts before sunrise. The film's production team was fortunate to grab the Weston Arena, a 60-year-old pile of Canadiana that was booked as soon as Score was green-lit last November. "I love this rink," enthuses McGowan. "Even the paint tells a story."

Actually, some of the paint is barely dry. For a dressing-room scene, the walls were freshly coated in blue, then scuffed up purposefully. Every roll of tape, jockstrap, shin guard and stick has been meticulously arranged to achieve an authentic state of dishevelment.

Around the ice surface itself are props (old-aged championship banners won by the film's fictitious Brampton Blades) and product-placement board signage (Grey Goose Vodka, Swiss Chalet, Scotiabank).

The music I hear blaring to the dancing fight scene is the big chorus number Toe to Toe, one of 19 songs. McGowan's lyrics, which rolled in his head as he wrote the script, are limerick-like: "Hockey without fighting is like Kraft Dinner without cheese / It's still pasta, but the palate it won't please." Not quite Paul Simon or Paul McCartney, he is quick to admit.

"I didn't think a lot of the lyrics would stay," McGowan says, smiling. "I didn't need to own them."

However, most of his wording - non-traditional phrasing, as far as modern pop songwriting goes - was used. "We quickly found there was a humour and a heart to them that actually worked well with music," explains the director, who is not a musician. "The words had their own sensibility."

The lyrics are set to a score composed by a team of songwriters, including Canadian pop stars Hawksley Workman, Marc Jordan and the members of Barenaked Ladies. Marco DiFelice, who co-wrote most of the material and, with Jody Colero, supervised the film's soundtrack, enjoyed the challenge of setting McGowan's "verbose" lyrics to a tuneful score.

"My initial reaction as a songwriter was 'Wow, you can't say that, you can't land on that syllable.'"

But once Colero accepted the notion of sticking with McGowan's wordy phrasing, the process took off. "I thought that if we could make it work, hopefully we're sitting in a league different than what's been done before."

The resulting score is described as tuneful and pop-orientated, with each of the numbers seen as a full song, even if only one minute long. "We get to a chorus," says Colero, a fan of Supertramp and the Beatles. "It's not operatic."

Newton-John's appearance came about as a result of her friendship and professional relationship with Amy Sky, the wife of co-star Jordan. When the casting of the Aussie songbird was announced, there was the sense that Score was heading to zany Xanadu territory - a notion that Colero dismisses. "We're not referencing Mamma Mia! or Across the Universe," he emphasizes. "We're going for more small, interesting, charming sounds. None of these songs have a huge entrance."

So, no show-stopping numbers, no show-tune razzle-dazzle. While the songs of many musicals start and end in the very same point in the plot, Score uses its tunes to advance the narrative.

"They could have been spoken," explains McGowan. "We always go forward with the songs."

If Score is no Grease in terms of format, it's not without big names. The Grammy-winning Furtado plays Claudette, a hockey-mad saucepot who decks herself out in team colours and leads fanatical cheers from the stands: "Uma, duas, tres, quatro - it's time to get stupido! Five, six, seven, eight - who are we going to castrate? The Devils! The Devils!"

In terms of business matters, this Score is settled. The financing for the $5.2-million budget came together quickly, and the marketing scheme has been calculated and aggressive, with casting announcements involving familiar names - the CBC's George Stroumboulopoulos, for example, is the arena announcer - made almost weekly.

The track has been fast for a Canadian film, with distributor Mongrel Media involved with the marketing unusually early for a film that won't be released until Oct. 22. For Mongrel, normally associated with smaller, artier films (such as McGowan's One Week), the grander Score, with its lofty box-office ambitions, is a step up in class.

All in all? "It's a different kind of film," says McGowan, getting ready for another take at the rink. "I'm trying to make a film that stands out in the marketplace - a very crowded marketplace. I think it has a chance."

A fighting chance, then. What else could you ask for?

 

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