"Les Choristes" ("The Chorus") is a familiar story about a teacher that comes into a school and makes a difference for students that nobody else cares about. Even when you narrow down the category to include teachers who use music you should be able to name enough movies in this genre to fill up at least one hand full of fingers. In fact, the only thing that might make this 2004 film different from the others you have seen from "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" to "Music of the Heart," is that it in French. That is because "Les Choristes" takes place in France.
At the start of this movie a man (Jacques Perrin) is awaken with news that someone has died. We learn that the man is a great conductor and when he goes home for the funeral there is another man (Didier Flamand) waiting for him. Many years ago they were students together at the Fond de l'Etang boarding school. Although this is not the best of circumstances, the other man has something to share with the conductor. The notebook of the man who was their teacher and who taught them how to sing. The opening page of the notebook is a sketch of the entrance to their school and the drawing transforms into a camera shot and we are back to the beginning of our story.
In 1949 Clement Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot) arrives at Fond de l'Etang to be the new prefect. His introduction to the students is when Rachin (Franciois Berleand), the head of the school, is disciplining the entire school because no one will admit to being the one who injured one of the teachers with a prank. Mathieu is a tad overweight and bald, so before the students even know his name they are calling him "Chrome Dome." He knows even less about the boys, but clearly he does not like the way they are being treated and he takes a series of different approaches in dealing with them. A failed musician, Mathieu hears the boys signing a derogatory song about them and uses that as the inspiration to create a chorus. His motives are not exactly pure, because I think his primary goal at first is to hear his own music being sung. But in time they move on to something more formidable (I think it was Jean-Phlippe Rameau's "La Nuit").
Three of the students stand out. Pierre Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier), is one of the leaders of the boy and the least able to admit to having an interest in singing, but he has the voice of an angel. Pepinot (Maxence Perrin) is one of the smallest boys and an orphan, who believes that his father will come for him on a Saturday. The newcomer to the school is Mondain (Gregory Gatignol), a bully who is content to be hit over and over again because that is the world in which he lives. I appreciated the fact that Mathieu does not save them all, and that his legacy is not only with hi students but with the other teachers at the school. In a story that is fairly predictable, there is a grace note at the end that comes with what should be an unexpected turn of events. Beyond that it is the earnestness of the performances that elevates "Les Choristes" above other films in this genre. Your only complaint might be that you wish there was more singing from the boys once they get their act together.