A young man comes to terms with his identity in this South African military musical set in the 1980s.
It’s 1984 and Johan Niemand is a young man in the small town of Villiersdorp. He thrives on idolizing the likes of Boy George, David Bowie, and other pop artists. When he is dared to go out decked out in a wedding dress, he relishes on the idea. However, reality sets in when he is forced to serve his mandatory two-year term in the Army. Instead of going to combat, he auditions and wins a spot in the South African Defense Force Choir, also known as the Canaries.
Befriend the rotund Ludolf on the train, Johan and his fellow Canaries find themselves at the constant wrath of Corporal Crunchie while they work with Reverends Engelbrecht and Koch. Johan also meets Wolfgang, a sometimes arrogant member of the group. Johan and Wolfgang soon bond over their mutual love of music and get closer while the group as a whole find themselves both respected and bullied from all sides. As Johan struggles to find out who he is, an intimate moment with Wolfgang leads to Johan questioning whether or not he is doing the right thing.
Set at the height of Apartheid, this film from Christiaan Olwagen revolves around music, military norms, and in the case of our protagonist, searching for himself. A mix of 80’s music, struggling with LGBTQ identity, military norms and biblical references, Olwagen meshes all these themes very smoothly with the story of Johan Niemand, a man who struggles to find himself and does so while serving in the military.
The driving force of the film is without a doubt the performance of Schalk Bezuidenholt as Johan. The opening scene of the film is elaborately vibrant when compared to the rest of the film. The opening credit feature Johan dressed like a cross between Madonna and Boy George performing as if we are watching a music video. It is when reality sets in that we see Johan’s struggles despite forming friendships with the rotund Ludolf, played by Germandt Geldenhuys; and Wolfgang, played by Hannes Otto. There are times when we see Ludolf gets constantly bullied for his mistakes and one can only fear he may get treated in the vein of Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket. Thankfully, it’s not the case.
As for Otto’s Wolfgang, he first comes across as a bit arrogant. However, as the film progresses, he slowly bonds and eventually finds himself with Johan in a romantic manner. Gerard Rudolf and Jacques Bessenger are somewhat on opposite sides of the spectrum with the former as the more stern Reverend Koch while the latter does a great job at giving the chorus a chance to open up as Reverend Engelbrecht. Beer Adriaanse provides some hysterical comic relief as Corporal Crunchie who after berating the chorus quietly asks Ludolf to treat him to his mother’s homemade cookies.
The film has some great musical sequences combined with the group getting along and enjoying themselves across the country doing various concerts for many different groups. However, there are times when the bullying goes too far, and Johan is in the middle of it all. It is when he returns home for a weekend that he really begins to struggle with himself until the final moments finally makes him comes to grips with who he is and what he needs to do.
Kanarie is a great character study of a young man in 1980s era South Africa coming to terms with his identity and how his ultimate love of music helps him comes to grips with that identity. This is a great film thanks to the performance of lead Schalk Bezuidenhout.
WFG RATING: A
Breaking Glass Pictures and kykNet Films present a Marche Media production. Director: Christiaan Olwagen. Producer: Jaco Smit. Writers: Christiaan Olwagen and Charl-Johan Lingenfelder. Cinematography: Chris Vermaak. Editing: Eva Du Preez.
Cast: Schalk Bezuidenhout, Hannes Otto, Germandt Geldenhuys, Gerard Rudolf, Jacques Bessenger, Francois Jacobs, De Klerk Oelofse, Ludwid Binge, David Viviers, Andrico Goosen, Beer Adriaanse.