It is hard to find fault with wholesome television...


March 30, 1991|By STEVE MCKERROW

It is hard to find fault with wholesome television, especially when the audience is the youthful family one targeted by The Disney Channel premium cable service. So the gentle thing to say about "Perfect Harmony," a new film premiering on Disney this weekend, is that it is not perfect.

A quality cast, impressive settings and a particularly nice musical score are undone by the film's predictable and improbably optimistic ending. Then again, the movie (which can be seen at 7 p.m. tomorrow) is really a morality tale whose moral is certainly worth absorbing.

Set in 1959 South Carolina, "Perfect Harmony" stars Peter Scolari (from "Newhart") as the new Yankee choirmaster of an all-white prep school whose angelic-sounding boys' choir is nationally famous.

Darren McGavin is a racist headmaster, Cleavon Little is a preacher trying to integrate the town's swimming pool and Moses Gunn is the school's caretaker, who says he has avoided racial trouble "by being invisible."

Yet this is a youth-oriented film, so three boys provide the dramatic triangle for teaching their elders a lesson in the evils of racism.

David Faustino (Bud from "Married, With Children") is Paul, a mean youngster imbued with the South's traditional racial hatred. Justin Whalin is Taylor, Paul's primary competitor for the honored title of "lead boy" in the choir, who is also fascinated by the blues music of Rivertown, the town's black enclave. And Eugene Byrd is Landy, a black servant boy who is the orphaned grandson of Gunn's character.

Landy plays the blues on a harmonica, and the new choirmaster discovers the boy is also blessed with perfect pitch and a remarkable musical "ear" that permits him to repeat any music he has heard. What is more, Landy is drawn to the music he hears in the boys' choir rehearsals.

It takes no great leap to predict where "Perfect Harmony" is headed: The strains of disparate forms of music will bring Taylor and Landy together in a new harmony of mutual humanity. (If you don't get the message against blind prejudice quickly, the text from the Handel oratorio whose solo the lead boy will sing at graduation repeatedly asks, "are we like sheep?")

Naturally, the boys' groping toward friendship and understanding is up against some nasty realities, including prejudiced adults with bombs and boys in white KKK hoods. Young viewers should know that the film's depiction of such things is not only historically accurate, but very much on the softer side of the ugly reality.

It would also be nice if the apparent breakthrough the boys achieve was mirrored by real life. But in 1959, our nation had still to face the bitterest, most violent decade in the fight for equality. (And even in 1991 Baltimore we have recently seen how issues of racial distrust can still divide a City Council.)

The nicest things about "Perfect Harmony" include a backdrop of stately performances of 17th century fine music, and samples of the blues and gospel traditions that have enriched America's culture. Singer/guitarist Richie Havens even makes a too-short appearance as a traveling guitarist.

Yet on the subject of equality, a subtle, perhaps unintentional sub-text must also be noted in the film. While starkly sketching the evils of racism, the movie leaves actress Catherine Mary Stewart the victim of sexism.

Apparently included merely to provide a chaste romantic interest for Scolari, she plays the headmaster's daughter, who blandly mirrors his views of the southern standards which must be upheld.

The role, the only female part in the movie, seems woefully neglected. Indeed, it is one plot element that is not predictable because it doesn't go anywhere. Yet dramatic sense would have had the young girl more on the other side of her father's viewpoint, strengthening the pressure for generational change.

Disney's 'Perfect Harmony' offers laudable message, predictable plot

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