Documentary Review: HBO captures the ultimate high school ‘show must go on’ moment, “Song of Parkland”

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In the larger scheme of things, the fact that a musical interrupted by tragedy came together for opening night isn’t the most important or telling story about the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

But if you watch one documentary about Parkland, Amy Schatz’s “Song of Parkland” might be the easiest to take.

The tragedy of Feb. 14, 2018, underscores every scene, every action.

The cell-phone videos recorded mid-evacuation, the TV news helicopter footage and montages of the news coverage of the massacre of 14 kids in a suburban high school isn’t pushed aside.

But the pluck and poise of the drama kids, more than a few of whom have become public spokespersons for a school that morphed into a national movement, is damned inspiring. The fierce, focused woman who is their teacher, coach and director, Melody Herzfeld — expects no less.

They were mid-rehearsal when Nikolas Cruz brought his AR-15 into school and opened fire. Herzeld, whom ALL her students call “Herzfeld,” didn’t let them dash into the hall on hearing the fire alarm go off.  One insists “that saved our lives.” She made them finish the number they were working on for their annual musical for little kids.

When the were in the middle of a school “CODE RED” became clear, she rounded up her charges — 65 students — and herded them into the secure “techie room” backstage.

Text your parents…that you’re safe” she told them.

And when they heard the police break down the nearby doors to finally enter the school, she gave them another piece of “direction.” Cell-phones off, hands up.

“No dramatics. You’re not going to cry.”

And as cell phone video of their “rescue” plays out on the screen, she remembers what she told them as they were led to safety out on the school lawn.

“On the grass, I said ‘NOW we can cry.'”

As the news of the tragedy spread and the school became Ground Zero for #NeverAgain, the political movement that would take on the Russian-financed NRA and its Congressional backers, with a school surrounded by makeshift memorials made of posters, notes of support, flowers and stuffed animals from all over the country, shaking the shock was difficult, handling the turmoil and emotions more than most kids could handle.

“Our city is broken, and we don’t know when it’s gonna be fixed,” student Alex Wind says. But for kids like him, Herzfeld’s “Make your voice heard, tell your truth” edict was something they could cling to.

They poured their heartbreak and trauma into composing songs. And they went back to rehearsal.

“You always hear, ‘The show must go on,'” Wind remembers. “When we all came back to school, we knew what we needed to do.”

They’d get “Yo, Pirates!,” a musical adaptation of a children’s book, ready for opening night.

“We HAD to finish this to show ourselves and the community that we CAN do and keep moving on from something tragic that happened,” cast member Ashley Paseltiner says.

“We want to bring happiness to the school…to ‘shine a light,’ if you will,” Alex Atjanasiou declares, to gales of giggles from the rest of the cast at his cheeky drama nerd corniness.

If you wondered where those darned “Parkland Kids” got their confidence to speak up, debate foes and withstand the assaults of Fox News hosts and others, where their polish in organizing their thoughts, their courage to stand up and start a movement came from, “Song of Parkland” has your answers.

Schatz’s film doesn’t capture kids in weeping despair, but in the focus that comes with a renewed sense of purpose.

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Drama kids, as anybody who ever was one can tell you, can be narcissistic and overly dramatic. But there’s little of that here. Schatz doesn’t let us confuse their efforts for any pursuit of the spotlight. They’re determined to put a different face on their school, and with that little musical, demonstrate resilience to their community.

Which they did, all the way to last year’s Tony Awards, when they stood on stage on national TV and sang “Seasons of Love” from “Rent.”

As I said, this isn’t the deepest or darkest or most complete look at Parkland you’ll ever see. But “Song of Parkland” is the most upbeat. Whatever hangs over them, whatever awful thing happened to them and their classmates, their plucky Keep Calm and Carry a Song is a sweet exclamation point to put on a year of tragedy, outrage, activism and action.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: unrated

Credits: Directed by Amy Schatz. An HBO Film.

Running time: 29 minutes

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