The most ambitious attempt to unite Canada since General Wolfe snuck up that very steep hill, Michael McGowan's new film is a blind date throwing together those who love and those who cannot abide hockey.
Score: A Hockey Musical is just that - a 1930s-style, boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl songfest. With sticks, skates and a puck.
The film is well made - as heartwarming as the sweater mom knit you for Christmas. And it's about hockey. So theoretically we have a Canadian crowd pleaser skating our way. "This is our game," the film's trailer exclaims. "This is our movie."
But wait a second - a hockey musical? What's that? Why not a hockey tragedy? Why not the story of a loudmouth family set on a crumbling estate with peasants chopping up the backyard rink? Don Cherry Orchard.
Writer-director McGowan's film works because he knows hockey and musicals inside out, and, operating on what must have been a hunch, figured their unlikely collision would create sparks. He's right, but audiences will have to do the Time Warp to appreciate his movie. The star-crossed lovers - Farley and Eve - wear long scarves and faces. Alone at night, they pour out their hearts in song. These kids are in an old RKO musical as much as they are in love.
As in many musicals, the young lovers are almost done in by wayward ambition. Seventeen-year-old Farley Gordon (Noah Reid) is home-schooled by utopians. His mom, Hope (Olivia Newton-John), wears a peace medallion. Farley's Dad (Marc Jordan) sports Mike Pearson bow ties. The parents abhor violence. Hate hockey. But Farley has winter in his blood. He skates like the wind on a neighbourhood rink. There's a hole in his life, however. The girl next door, Eve (Allie MacDonald), believes that she can fill that vacuum. She's wrong. An All-Canadian boy, Farley needs a hockey arena to express himself.
Problems: Farley has never played organized hockey. And he's a pacifist. Invited to play junior by a mysterious owner (Stephen McHattie), the youngster lands with the militaristic Brampton Blades. This is one of the film's inside hockey jokes: The real Brampton junior team, the Battalion, wear khaki-coloured uniforms.
Farley becomes a star, while remaining true to his principles. "An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind," he tells an opposing forward, quoting Gandhi. But then Bay Street - a hockey agent! - approaches, pointing a chequebook at Farley's head. Soon, he's a magazine cover boy, mouthing platitudes on TV with Biff Barf-type sportscasters (including George Stroumboulopoulos, talking slower than usual).
Eve is left behind, forced to console herself with a preening Italian pianist - a character styled after the continental fop who tempts Ginger Rogers away from Fred Astaire in Top Hat.
Farley thinks he sees Eve being untrue. Forced to fight in a game, he starts wondering about himself. Does he really want to be a hockey player, gargling beer and jumping off the team bus to pee his name in the snow with the guys?
Life is suddenly moving too fast. Time for another big production number! Score has lots, including a Busby Berkeley crane shot with swirling, dancing players. Elsewhere, hockey players use sticks like Astaire once wielded a cane, bouncing them off the ice, then windmilling them around.
There is hockey nostalgia too. The Brampton netminder, a phlegmatic French Canadian, vomits before games to rid his stomach of butterflies - just like Glenn Hall prior to every match for the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1960s.
Sweet memories go only so far with audiences, of course. McGowan's ( Saint Ralph) wondrous achievement here is making a discarded genre seem like ready-made fun. He does so by creating a playful satire of musicals, while somehow - this is the hard part - capturing the charm that made song and dance movies so popular.
He trusts his young stars, who repay him with winning performances. Allie MacDonald is alluring and properly impatient playing a 2010 Ginger Rogers. Star Noah Reid skates well and sings better than he skates. His Farley is just charming and self-absorbed enough to make his plight seem plausible. Exhibiting the elbowing conceit of youth, he figures he's too talented to fail. Which makes his inevitable comeuppance (and coming to his senses) so touching.
The hockey season is just under way, but already we can give away one of its trophies. Forget about Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Sorry, Henrik Sedin. The Heart Trophy for 2010-11 should go to Michael McGowan and his young stars for creating Score: A Hockey Musical.
Score: A Hockey Musical
- Written and directed by Michael McGowan
- Starring Noah Reid, Allie MacDonald, Olivia Newton-John, Stephen McHattie and Nelly Furtado
- Classification: PG
Special to The Globe and Mail