Brownstein: Music transcends all for Montreal special-needs choir | #specialneeds | #kids


“The Shira Choir are people with all kinds of disabilities … like all of us. Every single person has a disability,” choirmaster Daniel Benlolo says in the documentary Just As I Am.

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If you were to take your eyes off the screen, you might assume that the musical strains of everything from Amazing Grace to The House of the Rising Sun were being crooned by a group of professional singers.

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But the members of this choir are quite unlike most troupes. Montreal’s Shira Choir consists entirely of special-needs adult singers of all backgrounds, and its music not only lifts the souls of audiences, but of its members as well.

In the midst of the pandemic and a plethora of life-changing challenges, it’s the music that has helped pull this determined group through.

The documentary Just As I Am (also the title of a self-explanatory tune performed therein) offers stirring and exhilarating insights into the lives of several members. And it will go a long way toward shattering stereotypes.

The film has its world première Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, as well as online. Following this free public screening, it will start streaming on CBC Gem on Friday and will air on CBC-TV Saturday at 7 p.m.

As choirmaster and founder Daniel Benlolo puts it in the doc: “The Shira Choir are people with all kinds of disabilities … like all of us. Every single person has a disability.” And as volunteer songwriter Jon Shrier notes: “They’ll always have to fight, but they’re happier than we are.”

That’s the power of music.

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Veteran director Evan Beloff had no idea what to expect, particularly since plans were made to shoot prior to the pandemic. He first got wind of Benlolo, who had started a similar choir in Ottawa and was set to launch a Montreal version.

“I wanted to do something more intimate, with a much smaller, scaled-back crew,” says Beloff, director of the acclaimed Kosher Love, Once a Nazi … and Too Colourful for the League: A History of Blacks in Hockey. “We filmed for two months. Then the pandemic hit. I didn’t know what to do: wait till the pandemic ends, or try to make a film that deals with outreach during the pandemic.”

He opted for the latter. No small task: choir members were largely isolated from one another. There were Zoom rehearsals, but even that proved problematic, as some members didn’t have computers and the vibe just wasn’t the same for those who were able to participate.

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“It was just a wild, wild experience, unlike anything I have ever done,” Beloff says. “It was nuts. Making a film about a choir would be difficult in the best of circumstances. But in a pandemic?

“With most documentaries, you might shoot two or three weeks over the course of the year. We probably shot 50 days over the course of a year and a half. Then it was a case of shooting subjects from six feet. And Zoom shoots are boring.”

And yet somehow it all came together, driven by some fascinating characters and their compelling voices.

“There was such a natural innocence and sense of optimism with the members, and they were so refreshingly direct,” Beloff says.

Among the more intriguing members is Jonah Davis Yanofsky, 22, son of late Montreal Gazette contributor Joel Yanofsky and Cynthia Davis. Some of Just As I Am’s most poignant moments capture Davis and Yanofsky, who died last December, interacting with Jonah.

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“The choir is one of the best things that has ever happened to Jonah,” Davis says. “Cantor Benlolo is such a wonderful treasure.”

Jonah not only possesses a powerful voice — he and Shrier also co-wrote a few songs he performs in the film. One tune, Restrictions, speaks to issues in life in general as well as the pandemic, while another, Song for Daddy, is a tribute to his father.

“I’m doing well and want to continue singing with the choir and on my own. I can deal with not perfect,” stresses Jonah, who counts Nat King Cole and Elvis Presley among his inspirations.

Apart from the singing, Jonah is also sustained by his friendship with choir member Kemoy Connor, 35, whose rendition of Amazing Grace is a showstopper.

“This choir has been such an incredible experience,” says Connor, whose tastes range from gospel to country, R&B to rap. “I was just born to sing.”

She was. Same with the rest of the choir.

AT A GLANCE

Just As I Am: The Shira Choir has its world première Thursday, Sept. 23 at 7 p.m. at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, 4894 St-Kevin Ave., and online at shiramovie.com. The documentary starts streaming Friday, Sept. 24 on CBC Gem and airs Saturday, Sept. 25 at 7 p.m. on CBC-TV.

bbrownstein@postmedia.com

twitter.com/billbrownstein

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