Hitting Vitriol With Music — Doc Filmmakers Tell Boston Gay Men's Chorus' Powerful Story

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday January 18, 2023

A still from "Music Triumphs Homophobia"
A still from "Music Triumphs Homophobia"  

Over the course of its 41-year history, the Boston Gay Men's Chorus has faced prejudice and homophobia both in its home city — where as recently as 2011 a Christmas concert drew protestors — and abroad, when the group ventured to Poland in 2005, to the Middle East in 2015, and to South Africa in 2018, and met varying degrees of resistance, condemnation, and even attempts to sabotage their concerts.

(Full disclosure: This correspondent has been a member of the BGMC since 2009 and is currently on hiatus from the chorus while living abroad.)

The new documentary "Music Triumphs Homophobia" details those encounters with homophobic prejudice. And explains how a major mission of the BGMC — its defining mission, to a large degree — is to meet hate with love and vitriol with music. The film is co-written and co-directed by BGMC former Executive Director Craig Coogan — who, staring with the current season, became the ED of the Seattle Men's Chorus and its sister organization the Seattle Women's Chorus — and the BGMC's longtime videographer, Michael Willer.

The movie showcases the music of the chorus with footage from various concerts, as well as an underscore that often draws on archival concert recordings (plus an original score created for the film), and it makes stirring use of news clips and the chorus' own video documentation, but the heart of the project lies with interviews conducted with the organization's staff — including Music Director Reuben Reynolds III, Principal Accompanist and Assistant Music Director Chad Weirick, and current Executive Director Sarah Shoffner — as well as a representative mix of chorus singers, including longtime and newer members spanning different generations and community subgroups.

The story told in the film is powerful and all too contemporary; indeed, as the world around us continually proves, there's still work to be done in the quest for full social acceptance and legal equality. Nowhere is the hope, and the justice, of that work more keenly evident than in a concert by the BGMC, or any GALA chorus, of which there are more than 200 nation-wide. Music, as BGMC Music Director Reuben Reynolds III often notes in his comments from the stage, is a unique conduit for empathy and a matchless means for building bridges between people.

EDGE had the pleasure of catching up with old friends Craig Coogan and Michael Willer to hear about the making of the film, the challenges around achieving the auditory quality a documentary about a chorus demands, and how their personal and professional relationship nurtured the process of telling the BGMC's story.

Craig Coogan and Michael Willer
Craig Coogan and Michael Willer  (Source: Facebook)

EDGE: Viewing the documentary the two of you have created, I had a real pang of missing the BGMC. Craig, now that you've moved on and become the executive director for the Seattle Men's Chorus and its sister organization the Seattle Women's Chorus, do you have some pangs yourself as you watch the film?

Craig Coogan: I do miss the BGMC. I miss the people. I miss the music. And what's wonderful about the GALA movement is, it doesn't go away. That music, thanks to Michael, thanks to video, lives on.

EDGE: Michael, you've been the videographer for the BGMC for years. Are you still in that capacity with them now?

Michael Willer: Yeah. I think I started back in like 2013. I've always been freelance, and then I was sort of a dedicated freelancer starting during quarantine. And that's where we came up with a lot of those more substantial projects when the Chorus couldn't perform and we had to figure out how to pivot, and video became the solution. That was a very dedicated role. Now that we're in a post-vaccination world, and Craig's moved his job to Seattle, it became clear that my work in the GALA movement really is paired with my work with Craig.

My sort of official role as a dedicated freelancer is the director of video for the Seattle Choruses — Seattle Men's Chorus and Seattle Women's Chorus — and I'm continuing to do some freelance work for BGMC. As [BGMC] current Executive Director Sarah Shoffner said, there's a lot of legacy knowledge that Craig and I helped to build [in] the video world for BGMC, and we don't want to lose that.

EDGE: The two of you were a couple for a time. I wonder if the idea for the documentary is something that got started as an idea you discussed over the breakfast table or something.

Michael Willer: We're not together anymore, but the relationship has always been very intertwined in our love of storytelling, and our mutual ability to build off of each other person's excitement for storytelling. That's been our dynamic from day one.

Craig Coogan: We're now colleagues and it's a professional relationship, but that relationship is informed by the prior connection, so that we have a shorthand, and we know each other's strengths and the work that we do, especially in this film.

A still from "Music Triumphs Homophobia"
A still from "Music Triumphs Homophobia"  

EDGE: What went into the gathering and the recording of the interviews with the staff and the membership of the chorus?

Craig Coogan: It was wild, because over my tenure we had gathered a lot of content and interviews along the way. As we built the storyboard of what we wanted to tell, we identified certain gaps, certain perspectives that we knew we wanted to include. At the height of quarantine, in early '21, we went into a studio in Boston and did a bunch of interviews.

Michael Willer: We shot interviews while we were on the ground in the Middle East and Istanbul during all of the rioting, and in South Africa we shot interviews in the moment. Having the ability to look back and tell stories from modern day perspective was important — but also to bring a higher level of artistic control over the presentation of those interviews, like being able to take proper film-style camera, lighting, and design and create a presentation that fits the scope of the movie.

Craig Coogan: One of the things that I think is really great is having a vault of interviews going back a long period of time. We were able to capture moments time in the film, and we also made a deliberate choice in that we emulated what it is to be a chorus. This is not one or two people's points of view; there are dozens of voices throughout the film. That's actually what a chorus is: It's dozens of voices aligned around the same message.

EDGE: In older videos of the BGMC's performances the sound has been kind of muddy, but ever since you've been the chorus' videographer, Michael, and putting videos up on YouTube, the sound has been so much better — and that's true in this movie, too.

Michael Willer: Thank you! The concert recordings that we get tend to be in a very raw state. They're mixed for the [concert] hall, and you're right; it sounds muddy. I've tried very hard to learn better mixing techniques and to improve over the years, and also to have the BGMC YouTube videos represent that and sound better.

With this movie, it absolutely was a top tier priority for me to have a sound quality and sound mix that was extremely pleasing. With sound — and with editing as well — you've done your job perfectly if people don't notice it. You have to make sure that they're immersed in the experience of the movie and the emotions they're feeling, and not technical aspects. If they're thinking about the sound, it's probably because the sound isn't good.

We're pulling references and footage from Istanbul, from Jordan Hall, from Symphony Hall, from all of these different venues, and you have to try and make them all sound at least somewhat on the same level. The mix coming from the Istanbul performance, in particular — that was brutal. I pulled some really serious shenanigans to try and get that to sound even remotely listenable. It sounded great in the space, but the actual mix that we got afterwards is something else! It's not [like what you hear] in the movie, I'll tell you that.


Craig Coogan: The other [sound] element that was really important to us was that the entire movie was scored with BGMC music. There are parts of storytelling where having choral music underneath it didn't make sense, so we commissioned Chad to write the score, and Reuben conducted it. The average consumer shouldn't notice that, but for those of us related to the organization it's important that every moment of that movie is scored with music by Boston Gay Men's Chorus.

A still from "Music Triumphs Homophobia"
A still from "Music Triumphs Homophobia"  

EDGE: The issue of how churches and faith traditions assail our community is unavoidable in a documentary about an LGBTQ+ chorus, but even so, I was surprised at the role that the debate around faith played in the film. Was that one of the central storytelling points you started off with, or was it something that emerged as you were putting the film together?

Craig Coogan: It was part of the core tenet of storytelling. Having been in an out leadership role for most of my professional career, I've run into a lot of homophobia. As we were in quarantine, and I was reflecting on all of the various experiences that BGMC has had, it struck me that whether the chorus went to Vermont and was picketed at a small church, or went to Catholic Poland, or went to Muslim Istanbul, or went to Israel, the mistranslation of one or two Bible verses has spawned this entire homophobia industry.

The GALA movement has spent the last 45 years counteracting [homophobia] by making music that makes a difference, and getting it out in the world. We keep blaming evangelicals, or Christians, or [whomever], and [homophobia is] actually across all types of denominations and all types of religion. I felt that was an underrepresented perspective.

Michael Willer: Craig and I represent the yin and the yang of the perspective, which is that he's been a Christian his entire life and has held that faith strong for most of his life, and I haven't; that's not a big part of my background or my dynamic, at least not yet. We've had some reactions to [the film that were] like, "Oh, well, this was interesting, but I didn't realize you're gonna go so hard on religion." We're trying to be very gentle and accepting, and expressive of the need for faith and the role of faith plays in people's lives, but we absolutely need to point out the constructions of religion and how it can be weaponized, and say, "These are damaging; here's why. Here's how that got corrupted. And here's the difference between these two things that are both very important for very different reasons." We're not both atheists [or] bitter gay men coming at this saying, "Fuck religion." We're representing two very different perspectives, trying to tell a unified story in as balanced a way as we can.

Craig Coogan:: The conclusion being that the greatest commandment is love. That is the perspective that the film has, and that I think that is reflected in in what BGMC does.

A still from "Music Triumphs Homophobia"
A still from "Music Triumphs Homophobia"  

EDGE: I wonder if, in addition to streaming at Amazon, "Music Triumphs Homophobia" will be a film festival offering.

Craig Coogan: There's a cost associated with that. [We would have] to engage a firm to help distribute it and place it in festivals; there's a certain amount of labor to get into those festivals. BGMC is a little scrappier than that, and we did not have that level of budget. So, with limited resources, we looked at what is our best possible impact. Streaming at a very low cost through Amazon became the solution.

EDGE: Craig, do you have any update on that other documentary we talked about a few months ago — the one about the BGMC originating and performing a show in partnership with Disney?

Craig Coogan: We are continuing to work with our friends at Disney on behalf of BGMC. We're both doing a little adjunct project, and Disney is excited for us to put something together. We had put a few things together, and we got some notes back. We are trying to find a timeline to get that project done. So, it is still very much in process. Want to talk about mixing? I will toot Michael's horn, because he mixed — I believe it was 72 unique microphones from Symphony Hall. The audio that he's put together for that is extraordinary. The chorus was at a zenith at that moment, and Michael has made it more so.

Michael Willer: Thank you!

"Music Triumphs Homophobia" streams at Amazon Prime starting Jan. 19.

Watch the trailer:

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.