At the thirteen minute and thirty-two second mark, Michael McGowan’s Score: A Hockey Musical begins its fourth (fifth if you count the bizarre version of the Canadian National Anthem with John McDermott and Children’s Opera) musical number. This musical number is a duet between the two leads, Allie MacDonald and Noah Reid, both of whom would go on to release studio albums years down the road. The number, titled “Give it a Shot,” is listed as being written by the two film’s two main composers, Marco DiFelice and Benjamin Pinkerton, with lyrics by the director himself. The actual bulk of “Give it a Shot,” involves MacDonald convincing Reid to join an organized hockey team, you know, “why don’t you give it a shot.” This number takes place in an art gallery for some reason. The last line of this number is, and I quote from the subtitled translation, “and by doing so we can advance the plot.” The two performers tentatively stumble on the last word, “plot,” and questioningly repeat it a couple of times, as if they themselves cannot comprehend why, not even a full sixth of the way into this film, our fourth musical number necessitates lyrics alluding to how the plot is already starting to wear thin.
This is Score: A Hockey Musical, widely considered to be one of the worst (if not the worst) film to ever open the Toronto International Film Festival, whose 44thEdition starts this week. Here at Big Hot Mess we pride ourselves on talking about the films that we cannot stop thinking about, for better, or for worse. As much as I wish I could swing the other direction from the consensus for this one, I unfortunately cannot, and I am absolutely gutted to announced that Score falls on the more generally accepted end of the spectrum.
Do you enjoy reading pieces such as this one? I don’t mean Big Hot Mess specifically, because I know that you, dear reader, love the high quality shenaniganry that we pride ourselves on. I’m talking about the evisceration of a film, the scathing take down of something that fails spectacularly. I’m talking about review by way of masochism, attempting to convey the fact that I, the writer, suffered, and that you, the reader, should heed my caution to avoid a similar fate.
I think it’s foolish to suggest that we do not derive some sort of sick pleasure out of pieces such as the one above. It can be deliriously fun to read an account of just how much a person loathed a piece of art, particularly if it’s eloquently written, and particularly if it features a clever joke about barrels.
I’ve found that I have less desire to write such pieces as I grow older. For one, review by masochism is exhausting. For another, it is so painstakingly difficult to properly hold onto the tone of such a piece, and requires a sense of wit that I lack. Mostly, I’ve found that the films which irritate me the most, are ones that I think are disingenuous in their aims. Films that say one thing, but actually mean another dissonant thing. I see very few films that do this, and prefer to withhold the brunt of my anger for the rare instances where this occurs. Films that spectacularly fail, but earnestly do so, deserve much less vitriol.
If there is one thing I can say about Score, it is that it very clearly states its intentions and sticks to trying to achieve them. The film’s opening number is a rendition of “O Canada,” as performed by singer/songwriter John McDermott and the Canadian Children’s Company Opera (a children’s choir based out of Toronto). Parochial is the right adjective to describe this film; insular might even the stronger one. McGowan’s film is a laser focused vision of Canadiana about the country’s chief cultural export—a love for the game of hockey. This film is so serious about its lack of seriousness, that is incorrect to claim that this is in any way disingenuous.
Earlier in the summer in a review for The Art of Racing in the Rain, I posed a theory about cinema as being a medium revolving around inherently imperfect choices. Even if choice “X” is theoretically the correct choice, choosing “X” means you not only that you are saddled with the results of said choice, but also, with the fact that by choosing “X” you can no longer choose “Y”. This is a strategy one can employ to better understand a film. A close-up offers a different meaning to a long shot. The “X” choice of a close-up differs from the “Y” choice of a long shot, and therefore, if someone chooses to use a close-up instead of a long shot, there is probably a reason why.
The “X” choice of McGowan’s film is that this must be a Canadian Hockey Musical. Let’s turn this into an equation, so that we can breakdown the individual components: Hockey+Musical+Canada=Score: A Hockey Musical. From a purely logistical standpoint, this is a casting nightmare. One, the inherent “hockey” already adds a conundrum. In an earlier edition of Big Hot Mess, we touched upon how ice hockey is a difficult sport to cast. You need actors who can skate, and you need them on mass. Unless you plan to perpetually use a stunt double, of which a careful combing of Score’s credits could reveal little evidence that they did so, your lead needs to be able to act and skate. The musical element, means that you need someone who can sing, but combined with the hockey element necessitates a lead who can act, sing, and skate. Finally, when you add in the Canada portion of the equation, you’re left with being forced to find a Canadian Actor who can act, sing, and skate. In doing so, you’ve severally limited your talent pool, and this doesn’t even consider the fact that the performer has to be of a certain age group as well.
Noah Reid is probably the closest this film could get to checking all of those boxes. At this point, Reid is probably best known for his recurring role on Schitt’s Creek. As mentioned earlier he has also released a studio album, which from what I can tell, seems to be a not-half bad compilation of adult contemporary pieces. He’s not even a half-bad hockey player. Here he stars as Farley Gordon, a hockey prodigy who is as good as he is mollycoddled. Both he and co-star Allie MacDonald seem miscast to lead this kind of a musical. The third musical number of the first fifteen minutes, involves the pair singing about how their best friends. It’s a sweet piece, probably my favourite song in the whole film. It’s done in the vein of lighter, folk rock, which seems to perfectly suit the styles our leads would later go on to perfect in their musical careers. When Score stays in this vein, it succeeds. When it attempts to go for the more overt show tunes, it begins to fall apart.
Part of the issue with the more overt show tunes stems from some real tacky lyrics. One particular number, titled “Kraft Dinner,” builds an elaborate metaphor about hockey’s violent reputation as something akin to KD and cheese. Hockey is to violence, what cheese is to pasta; without each other, they’re both incomplete things? Never mind the fact that both cheese and pasta are perfectly fine on their own, that this number occurs during a massive pre-game brawl that turns into a full out choreographed piece is some truly bizarre staging.
Violence in sport becomes a central theme of Score: A Hockey Musical. Farley Gordon is a good hockey player. It’s hard to tell how good he really is because the league seems to be the musical theatre league equivalent to your average brawl-heavy low-level junior league that plays late on Monday nights. Is Farley actually a prodigy, or is he simply the only one interested in actually trying to play hockey?
The perpetually violent disposition of the actual hockey action, however, leads to the most irritating cliché surrounding hockey-based films. The scrutinization of the tenuous balance between the (superfluous but somehow still ingrained in the sport) physical violence and the immense skill needed to properly play hockey, being analyzed through the eyes of some doe-eyed young superstar who has grasped the latter part of the equation, but not the former, is a staple of hockey films. From Youngblood to MVP: Most Valuable Primate, there’s a whole canon of these films. By 2011, this trope had been so exhausted that films began doing taking the opposite approach, namely Michael Dowse’s Goon, about a pugilist who can’t play hockey to save his life.
The use of this cliché here does not help the film. In fact, it probably hinders the overall thematic messaging. Score uses the emphasis on Farley fish out of water run ins with on ice violence, to partially pose some questions about masculinity. But the film’s ultimate answer is toothless, instead, preferring to offer a glib sort of argument that “Farley just needs to be himself.” None of this really gets into the reality of toxic masculinity in hockey, which I will admit is a big ask for a film of this nature to tackle, but also, feels like not too much of an ask when the current film is so banal about all of it. Score does not have to be Kevin Funk’s (excellent) Hello Destroyer to have something to say.
What Score does have to say is that hockey is quintessentially Canadian. On that front, McGowan is not necessarily incorrect. The film’s closing number is ditty about how hockey is great. But since this is the film’s thesis, the other elements of the film such as, Farley’s masculinity crisis, the romance with next door neighbour and best friend Eve (MacDonald), a bizarre subplot about Farley selling out, are all essentially window dressing. Hence why songs fifteen minutes into the film find themselves commenting on how the film’s plot is stalling.
For the most part, Score is not a renowned film. Its claim to fame is probably that it ostensibly provoked the Toronto International Film Festival to avoid programming Canadian films for its opening night for a few years. When you consider what TIFF is, however, it feels unfair that McGowan’s film was essentially put in front of the firing squad. TIFF is home to films of all kinds, but it is also home to discerning cineastes, some of whom are willing to travel thousands of miles for the festival. When a film is poor, it does not play well. I point you to exhibit Men, Women and Children as evidence. When it came to TIFF, Score as never put in a position to succeed.
That it never put itself in one on the screen, is the other half of that equation though. In some senses, the instantaneous reaction on arguably cinema’s biggest stage did Score no favours. But the biggest disappointment is that this ultimately has nothing to say. This is literally a hockey musical, and yet, very little of this is creative enough to be little more than a sweet to the point of saccharine story. This is not disingenuous, and thus, does not inspire ire. But it does leave me apathetic, and I’m not certain that’s all that much better.