A documentary about a gay choir singing their way through the American South could be an earnest tearjerker, or fabulously entertaining. (Even better, both.) Unfortunately, the catchy premise laid out in “Gay Chorus Deep South” never comes to life on the screen. With muted characters and a conventional structure, the movie struggles to find the fun or the spirit, humming between high notes and low notes to fall flat in the middle. While its heart is in the right place, “Gay Chorus Deep South” just doesn’t sing.
With LGBTQ+ rights under attack around the country, and anxieties about reaching across the aisle reigniting in the run up to the 2020 election, the time is ripe for an uplifting tale of ideological chasms bridged by the power of music. The subject matter is political, timely, and carries a message of love and acceptance. It makes perfect sense that powerhouse documentary executive Sheila Nevins chose “Gay Chorus Deep South” as her first project under her new role as head of MTV Documentary Films. Nevins is giving the film an awards push, but it may be too understated to excite voters.
Directed by David Charles Rodrigues, “Gay Chorus Deep South” follows the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus on a tour through the American South. It’s an inspired idea to burst out of the ever-looming “liberal bubble” and stop preaching — or in this case, singing — to the choir. Chorus members used their own money to join the tour, which the organizers deliberately scheduled in states with the worst track records on LGBTQ+ rights. In another bold move, the musical program offered gay-positive interpretations of traditionally religious music by changing lyrics to preach tolerance and love.
It’s a personal mission for the singers, many of whom left the South and other conservative small towns to find community in the gay mecca of San Francisco. Chief among them is choir creative director Tim Seelig, whose story is sad and familiar: leaving the church, shunned by his ex-wife, and cut off from his children. Seelig presides over his eclectic flock like a benevolent minister — he counsels one member to invite his parents more directly, and peppers his directorial speeches with quaint and convivial humor.
The most compelling character is Ashlé, a black trans-femme who explores her gender identity throughout the film. She first introduces herself as a trans woman, later settling into gender non-conforming and the in between. While the movie stays on the surface of her journey, Ashlé’s embrace of ambiguity is an important side of the trans experience, and one that’s less often explored onscreen.
However, while the music is beautiful, it lacks energy. That’s no fault of the filmmaking; Seelig’s arrangements lean somber and mellifluous over spirited and uplifting. When a different choir inexplicably pops in near the film’s conclusion and features a transcendent phrase from a soulful woman soloist, viewers may find themselves wishing the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus accepted more women.
“Gay Chorus Deep South” is the second feature documentary from David Charles Rodrigues, who shares writing credit with Jeff Seymann Gilbert. It’s unclear if Rodrigues couldn’t find more dynamic interview subjects from the sea of singing gay men, or if he felt it necessary to focus heavily on Seelig. More creative casting could have gone a long way toward enlivening the story, which is often told inside the confines of a tour bus or rehearsal room.
There are moving moments: members reconnecting with estranged family, slightly uncomfortable dinners with generous but cautious hosts, and interviews with isolated teenagers who are nervous but excited to be surrounded by community for the first time. However, the film needed more to pack an emotional punch.
Last year’s “The Gospel of Eureka” offers a more creative take on how gay communities in the South co-mingle with religion. Set in a tiny Arkansas town that is home to both the biggest Jesus statue in the country and one of the state’s only drag bars, “The Gospel of Eureka” succeeds where “Gay Chorus” fails by tapping into an oddball specificity. Another take on a similar theme is Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s YouTube Original documentary feature “State of Pride,” which found unexpected characters to illuminate the day to day lives of gay people living in the South. Without compelling characters or one or two specific locations to anchor it, “Gay Chorus Deep South” can’t find the notes.
MTV Documentary Films will release “Gay Chorus Deep South” in theaters on November 1.