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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

The Christmas Choir

Introduction

As the festive season is upon us, it seems appropriate to consider a suitably seasonal film. The Christmas Choir offers an updated version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol by telling the story of a workaholic, self-absorbed man who is jilted into realising that life is about so much more. It is essentially a tale of redemption, love and second chances that highlights the power of music to unite and to transform.

A Christmas Choir

 

What makes this film especially interesting is that it is based on a true story. A French dental technician named Pierre Anthian, who had a background in classical music, moved to Canada in 1995 and began volunteering at a shelter for the homeless in Montreal, because he had always devoted much of his time to helping disadvantaged people. He was motivated by a long held aim to create a choir of homeless men, which was partly inspired by the important role that music played in his life. Anthian is quoted as saying “Music is good for the soul. I hoped a choir might provide these men with a way to earn a little money and to gain self-confidence and dignity.” He put out a call amongst the street community in downtown Montreal, asking for choir members and stating that musical experience and talent were not necessary. Not long after rehearsals began he had collected 20 people, ranging in age from 19 to 67, some with drug and alcohol problems and a few with musical ability, which resulted in the birth of the Accueil Bonneau Choir. They made their debut in December 1996 in a subway station and went on to make six albums and to tour as far afield as Paris and New York. The choir disbanded in 2003, as many of its members had found jobs.

 

Written by Donald Martin and directed by Peter Svatek in 2008, The Christmas Choir was first shown on television in America and has only just been released on DVD, in the UK, in September 2010.

The Film

As the film opens, we are introduced to Peter Brockman, hard at work in his office, where his secretary asks him, apologetically, if she can have leave during the week after Christmas, to see her family. Absorbed in his accountancy work, he almost forgets that he is supposed to meet his fiancée for a meal that evening and consequently arrives late to hear her tell him she no longer wants to marry him because he is a workaholic. Confused and upset, Peter consoles himself in a bar where a man called Bob is playing the piano and singing. They start to talk and find that both had mothers who believed in the power of music to nourish the souls. Bob invites Peter back to meet ‘his family’, which turns out to be the residents of a homeless shelter. Here Peter meets sister Agatha, a formidable nun who runs the centre. She accepts a generous donation from him but also invites him to give his time to volunteering if he is able. He tells her that this is unlikely as he has very little time, but he finds himself drawn back to the shelter with the idea of starting a choir for the men there. He hopes to give them the chance to earn some money for Christmas. With some scepticism and reluctance, sister Agatha allows him to try. The rest of the film tells the story of his struggle to make the choir a success and to find out what really matters to him. As Peter finds purpose in his life through the choir, he also finds new love.

 

The Christmas Choir is also a film about estrangement between fathers and sons. We discover that Peter has had no contact with his father for sometime and that Fred, one of the homeless men, has been shunned by his son.  We find out, too, that Peter’s father has a problem with alcohol, which Peter finds very hard to deal with. This difficulty is echoed in the problem drinking of one of the choir members, which almost threatens to destroy the project at one point. The film reminds us that anyone, from any walk of life, can encounter difficulties with alcohol and money that may set them on the slippery slope to homelessness and that receiving help at just the right time can make the difference between success and failure for an individual.

 

Relevance to the field of Mental Health

The Christmas Choir presents us with two important topics that have a great relevance to those involved in mental health: the first is the field of Music Therapy and the second is the issue of psychiatric morbidity among the homeless.

To quote from Nordoff Robbins, the UK charity that specialises in using music to transform the lives of mentally or physically disabled adults and children: “Clap your hands. Tap your feet. Sing out loud. Dance or stomp. Shout or cry. We all react to music in different ways. But we all react. Because music has a universal power to reach us, touch us and make us feel different.”

 

There is a growing body of research in the Music Therapy field that seeks to examine its clinical effectiveness as an evidence-based practice in a wide range of client groups. The Nordoff Robbins research department presents some of this research in a publication, freely available online, called Presenting the Evidence. Of particular interest to psychiatrists is the work being done, by music therapists, with dementia sufferers, stroke victims, individuals with learning disability and those diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorders.

 

The Christmas Choir may touch many of us, at least in part, because the Carols in the film have probably been known to most viewers living in Christian societies since their childhood, whatever their religious beliefs. They often provoke memories of past Christmases, whether good or bad, just as they do for Peter in the film. This musical recognition can demonstrate to us how music might be used in a therapeutic setting. In a reminiscence session, for example, individuals suffering from dementia, who lived through the second World War, may be able to connect with their early life by singing along to wartime tunes when they are unable to express those memories in words.

 

Turning to the other topic of relevance to the mental health field, The Christmas Choir brilliantly highlights some of the psychosocial issues associated with being homeless. Much research has examined the psychiatric morbidity that is associated with homelessness. An original paper by Marianne Hayward entitled Psychiatric morbidity and health service use among attendees at a winter shelter, (Psychiatric Bulletin (2007), 31, 326-329), found 31.3% of 597 attendees, at a Christmas shelter in the UK, were recorded as having psychiatric morbidity. Many other studies have shown an increased rate of depression, anxiety, psychosis and substance misuse in the homeless population, making it hugely important to target this population and encourage better engagement with mental health services.

 

For homeless people, breaking away from their social exclusion and poverty is often very difficult as it can be almost impossible to get employment whilst they are homeless, but to find even temporary accommodation can be too great a financial challenge. Organisations like Off the Streets and into Work and Crisis (who merged together in April 2010) work hard to find employment solutions for homeless people. In the current economic climate this has become an even tougher task. Homeless Link is the national membership organisation for frontline homelessness agencies in England. Their mission is to be a catalyst that will attempt to bring an end to homelessness.  Their website provides the interested reader with a wealth of information on the issues and facts surrounding homeless living.

 

This year, the BBC Radio 4 Christmas Appeal also addresses the issue of homelessness by highlighting the work of The Connection, an organization providing specialist services for the homeless in central London.

 

The Christmas Choir, based upon the real life experiences of a small number of homeless men, provides a wonderful introduction to some of the complex issues surrounding homelessness, as well as to the power of music to transform lives.

 

Minds on Film blog is written by Dr J Almeida, Consultant Psychiatrist.

 

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Comments

Re: The Christmas Choir
I love the theme of forgiveness in this movie and the idea that this message can resound to thousands of us who need to "walk" through some mental issues. Can you please tell me what has happened to those members of the original choir and the leader? What a beautiful narrative!
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About this blog

 

Minds on Film is a monthly blog that explores psychiatric conditions and mental health issues as portrayed in a selection of readily available films.

Please note that this blog may contain plot spoilers. Any views expressed are purely my own.

Dr Joyce Almeida
Dr Almeida is a consultant
psychiatrist working in the private sector in the UK.