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Choir of Hard Knocks – Episode 3 (2007)


Inspired by an article about a homeless men’s choir in Montreal, choirmaster and former opera singer Jonathan Welch forms a similar choir in Melbourne in association with local charity Reclink. Auditions are not required – anyone who is homeless, struggling with addiction or mental health issues, or disadvantaged in some way can join. In episode 3, the choir enter the recording studio to record material for a CD. They have only a few days to produce a half-hour disc – a big ask even for more seasoned choirs.

Curator’s notes

Tracking 50 or so choir members and their whirlwind progress from recruitment to recording and performing means that Choir of Hard Knocks has a lot of ground to cover in five half-hour episodes. While the choir’s journey from inception to national recognition is interesting enough, the most compelling parts of the story come when the series invites the audience to be in the moment with the members of the choir. The diverse group of people who make up the choir are the show’s greatest asset. They are interviewed as they rehearse and record and there are some moving moments as they hear their voices played back for the first time (see clip two).

Choir of Hard Knocks occupies a curious and even controversial position on the 'factual television’ spectrum, showing the impact of the reality television explosion. While it doesn’t have the staged feel of standard reality shows, it nonetheless documents a situation created for the purpose of the series, rather than one that existed beforehand. Inspired by reading about the Montreal homeless choir, producer Jason Stephens developed the series concept, aiming also to challenge community perceptions about the homeless. The series premise became a TV format, which Stephens and Fremantle Media licensed to the ABC and, following the show’s success, also sold internationally.

Stephens began his TV career as a comic writer and performer in D Generation (1986–87). He approached Jonathan Welch who had set up a similar choir in Sydney. The role of Stephens and Fremantle Media in kickstarting the story is not part of the narrative. Instead, the series begins with Welch reading about the Montreal choir, discussing the idea with Reclink and recruiting choir members. The effect is to make Choir of Hard Knocks feel more like a ‘traditional’ documentary which deals with events occurring in the real world than one contrived for the sole purpose of making a TV program. In interviews with Encore magazine and blog TV Tonight in 2007 and 2008, Stephens discusses the decision to exclude the 'contrived’ element from the storytelling, believing it would 'get in the way’.

Although the TV show set the ball rolling, the choir continued beyond the series, performing and recording to acclaim and popular success. However, tensions appeared around the collision of community, charity and commercial aims, as well as the always complex nature of the documentary filmmaker-subject relationship. In 2009, the media reported that some members of the choir had sought legal representation over concerns about the use of the choir’s income and the impact on their lives of being on television. In a separate incident, Welch and many of the choir’s members separated from Reclink over differences regarding how the choir should be run; in particular, it seems, over whether it should operate as a non-profit community project or commercial venture. Welch and a group of Choir of Hard Knocks members formed a new choir, called the Choir of Hope and Inspiration. Reclink continues to run a number of other community choirs.

Choir of Hard Knocks screened on the ABC and was a critical success, winning the Logie Award for Most Outstanding Factual Documentary TV Series in 2007. The series also won the ARIA award for Best TV Soundtrack, and the CD was certified Platinum, having sold over 70,000 copies within a few months of release. The choir’s 2007 performance at the Sydney Opera House received a Helpmann award for Most Outstanding Special Event. The 2009 ABC series Jail Birds showed Jonathan Welch leading a choir in a women’s prison.