Score: The Hockey Musical Opens TIFF With Jaw-Dropping, Head-Scratching Slap Shot
Considering the dull thud with which last year's opening-night film Creation landed here, the Toronto Film Festival decided to go more traditional with tonight's fest opener. And while Score: A Hockey Musical is quite possibly the most distinctly Canadian product I've seen since, well, ever, there is no denying that this one also throws tradition under the Zamboni. It's more like a hockey opera -- and yes, that really is Theo Fleury doing his own singing.
Despite his clear disdain for the scourge of figure skating ("I only like men who skate with sticks," the leading lady sings to our hero after rebuffing her toe-picked Italian suitor), give writer-director Michael McGowan big credit for degree of difficulty on his flawed labor of love. It's almost impossible to even call Score flawed; it is so uniquely its own thing and so adventurous in upending convention that you have to wonder if a whole generation of would-be filmmakers will swear to their producers that yes, they can make a musical about anything. I kind of pitied the impatient viewers who shuffled out of this afternoon's screening before it ended, as if the spectacle of locker-room dance numbers and hockey mom Olivia Newton-John (!) crooning her distaste for her ice-prodigy son's chosen lifestyle weren't everything the film's description promised. McGowan wanted to make a hockey musical, damn it, and that's exactly what he did. What's the problem?
Apart from execution, you mean? Score indeed suffers from some of the same droopiness and inertia that sunk the upcoming Australian aborigine musical Bran Nue Day and even plagued no less than Rob Marshall on Nine: When our young hero Farley Gordon (Noah Reid) meets his first real challenger in a pick-up game in his native Toronto, the duel is settled with a bunch of guys standing around and trash-talking -- in tune, of course -- until Farley can bust his sweet puck action up and down the ice. Spied soon afterward by a local junior-franchise owner, Farley is then wooed to try out for the Brampton Blades. "You could be the next Sidney Crosby," he tells Farley, invoking the young Pittsburgh Penguin star (and recent Olympic hero) by way of contrast to these pick-up cheapies he's been occupying himself with all these years.
Trouble is, Farley's a home-schooled dork who has never played organized hockey in his life. His parents disapprove of the sport's violence and other "moronic" qualities; his best friend Eve (Allie MacDonald), for whom she bears an unspoken, unrequited (and obviously mutual, because of course) torch, encourages him to follow his dreams, at least until they interfere with her access to his sensitive charms. Virtually all of this occurs in verse, some better than others. ("Are we supposed to believe that baloney?/You'd be lucky to drive a Zamboni," Farley's chums sing to that aforementioned challenger, who swears he'd be in the NHL if he'd just caught a few extra breaks.) After a while one must wonder if McGowan knows that even musicals have books, and expository song isn't necessarily a step up from expository dialogue.
But -- and this is a rink-sized "but" -- it's the ambition on the ice that makes Score work as a little more than a curio. Reid is fantastically game both on and off skates; bopping around with his overeducated alto like a taller, filled-in Michael Cera, he takes as many chances as his director and wins with most of them. It's kind of amazing when you think about the way hockey films in particular are cast -- how it's a million times easier to turn a hockey player into an actor than vice versa, because you try to learn stick-handling, puck control and backward crossovers while remembering the lyrics to a song about team bonding. His innocence follows that of so many genre naifs who've found their calling, lost it to greed and avarice (demonstrated here by a swag-foisting superagent) and conceded defeat only to come back stronger than ever. Yet it happens in games, practice, fights...
Oh, yeah -- the fights. Score's most interesting talking points mirror the one that's haunted hockey immemorial: Sure, fighting is part of the game, but is it _ a necessary part of the game? You won't find an answer here ("Hockey without violence is like Kraft dinner without cheese/It's still pasta, but the palate it won't please," sings the team owner during the film's first brawl, scored to a waltz, no less), but McGowan is clearly invested in the idea that fighting has overtaken the sport in a way that demands not prohibition, but full-blown rethinking. His conclusion is reminiscent of Michael Ontkean's own in Slap Shot, one of seeming elegance, grace and complete bafflement.
The Canadians at this festival are going to fall hard for this movie tonight, and I say good for them. The rest of us -- hockey fans, film devotees and musical lovers -- are going to scratch our heads wondering if any of the three will ever be the same. But give a guy credit for taking an honest chance -- and scoring a go-ahead goal if not quite the game-winner.