Below, Jonathan Kalafer shares a scene from his documentary “Once in a Lullaby: The PS22 Chorus Story,” which is screening during the 16th annual DocuWeeks in New York (August 3-9) and Los Angeles (August 10-16). The film documents the amazing journey of a class of fifth graders from Public School 22 in New York who went from performing in their school auditorium in Staten Island to closing the Oscars ceremony in 2011 after becoming a viral sensation via YouTube performance videos.
This scene occurs at the P.S. 22 (Public School #22, for those unfamiliar with New York City’s school naming system) annual holiday concert. It serves as the inciting incident for the chorus’ trip to the Oscars™. The students are unaware that this won’t be a typical holiday concert.
In the scene, we see producer Bruce Cohen (“American Beauty,” “Silver Linings Playbook”), who was one of the producers for the 83rd annual Academy Awards, introducing Anne Hathaway, who goes on to invite them out to Hollywood to be the finale performance at the Academy Awards™. There is also a shot in this sequence of the original PS22 documentarian, teacher Ms. Lisa, who is holding a camera and recording the event for the PS22 Chorus archives on YouTube.
Behind the Scene
I actually shot this scene before I knew I would be making a documentary about the chorus. I was invited by PS22 principal Melissa Donath (who I have a personal friendship with and a professional respect for) to shoot the holiday concert as a favor, and at first she did not tell me that there was going to be a special announcement. She had been half-joking with me for years that I should do a documentary on the chorus, but I hadn’t really seriously explored it. At this point in my life, doing a documentary was the last thing on my mind. I had been very ill for months: my hands were alternating numb and painful sensations, I had intense chest pain, stabbing pain in my eyes, strange ringing in my ears, a constant intense headache. None of the half-dozen doctors I had seen could agree on a diagnosis. I was not that excited to be shooting. I was tired after a day of teaching at the high school where I work in Jersey City. I was in pain. I was scared.
Once the show started, I experienced the healing power of music. Like most great music, the live show was a totally different experience than the recordings. I had seen the YouTube videos and loved them but this was like being in heaven and listening to a choir of angels. I felt better than I had in months. It was as if all the songs chorus director Gregg Breinberg had chosen were from a special playlist meant to inspire and comfort me.
Bruce Cohen and Anne Hathaway addressed the chorus at the end of the concert. At that point, I was floating in a music induced bliss. Watching the scene unfold through my EX1’s viewfinder, tears welled up in my eyes. All the logistics that had previously kept me from seriously considering doing a documentary on the chorus became unimportant. I knew that I wanted to do a documentary on the chorus, or at the very least, shoot more video of them. I rode that musical high on the long drive back to my home in New Jersey. Already a plan of action was forming in my head.
A month later I was finally diagnosed with Lyme disease and the lesser known tick-borne infections Bartonella and Babesia. The infection had spread to my brain and the blood vessels in my heart. I started antibiotics, and along with my regular doses of the PS22 Chorus and their music I started making a recovery. I assembled an awesome crew and with their help created what I consider the best work of my life during the most difficult time in my life. I have emerged from the process with a new respect for the power of music and a deepened understanding of the transformative power of a good teacher.
The title treatment that appears before this clip appears in a different place in the actual movie. It was designed by Dusty Summers and the graphic design group Heads of State out of Philadelphia. It was brought to life by motion graphics designer Colin Hesterly.