Song of Parkland | Amy Schatz | February 7, 2019 (HBO)
It’s been nearly a year since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, and the school and community still feel the pain, much like Columbine, Sandy Hook, and other schools and communities that experienced similar preventable tragedies. But what brings the school back together, as shown in HBO’s new documentary short Song of Parkland, is musical theater.
Director and producer Amy Schatz, who has made other all-ages documentary shorts for HBO (including a recent Holocaust-related documentary), captures the Marjory Stoneman Douglas drama program over several months in the aftermath of the February 14th shooting, centering on teacher and director Melody Herzfeld. As the 72 students in her program return to school, they decide that their annual show – 2018’s being a Viking musical – must go on. During the remaining months of the 2017-2018 school year, Herzfeld also works with the students on a songwriting therapy program, and some of the students are also invited to perform a tribute at the 2018 Tony Awards (RENT’s “Seasons of Love”) in conjunction with Herzfeld’s Excellence in Theater Education award.
Schatz wisely doesn’t focus so much on the still fresh and painful memories of the shooting, relying on news footage (and some student evacuation footage) and including talk of the day and aftermath if the students felt comfortable enough to discuss it rather than pressure them into talking. And the students interviewed – primarily Alex Wind (one of the core March For Our Lives members), Ashley Pasteltiner, Alex Athanasiou, Molly Richards, and Kelly Mathiese – are still optimistic despite what they experienced.
However, the 3 main focuses of Song of Parkland – the musical, the songwriting, and the Tonys – don’t flow. There’s enough of a connection between the former 2 because of Herzfeld’s program, but the narrative connecting thread seems lost and the songwriting portion isn’t fully developed. Then, there’s the Tonys segment at the end, which mostly reuses the broadcast footage rather than behind the scenes footage and feels tacked on. The short half-hour run time may be part of the reason why. If there was another half hour, each of these focuses could have been developed more and connected better.
If you believe in the power of musical theater, especially in the aftermath of trauma, then Song of Parkland is right up your alley. If you focused more on the March For Our Lives in the aftermath of Parkland, the documentary is a good companion and behind-the-scenes look at some of the students involved in the movement.
Song of Parkland airs tonight at 7 PM on HBO.