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Docurama presents
Autism: The Musical (2007)

"I have no idea if they're going to be able to pull it off. These are kids, by nature, who are isolated. They're not supposed to be able to be spontaneous, be imaginative,"
- Elaine Hall

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: February 13, 2009

Director: Tricia Regan

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (brief mild language)
Run Time: 01h:33m:50s
Release Date: May 13, 2008
UPC: 767685109472
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A+C+B- B-

DVD Review

It's strange, but the title of this 2007 HBO documentary sounds like it could be a bad South Park episode. It almost sounds mocking, in a way. Clearly, the words "autism" and "musical" are like polar opposites, two elements that seemingly could not be anymore disparate. This would have to be a joke, right? Some kind of politically incorrect attempt at humor?

Yet in Los Angeles, a remarkable woman named Elaine Hall—the mother of a young son with severe autism—began something called The Miracle Project, and her noble goal was to stage a full-fledged musical written by and starring children with autism. Director Tricia Regan introduces us to Hall, her son Neal, as well as focusing on four other children who are all a part of The Miracle Project. She alternates between showing the struggles of the ongoing rehearsals as opening night approaches, but also looks into lives of the children and their parents as they live—day in and day out—with autism.

The kids that Regan uses as her main subjects are certainly a charming and charismatic lot, each afflicted with varying levels or degrees of autism. Henry is an expert on dinosaurs, Wyatt speaks wise-beyond-his-years about bullies, while teenage Lexi largely communicates by repeating what has just been said to her. As we meet them—as well as their parents—there is an opportunity to hear and see how they cope in very different yet similar ways, and it makes the issue of the seemingly impossible musical practically take a backseat.

There are home movies from when the children were babies and toddlers, just before the families discovered that something perhaps wasn't wired just right. Those are genuine and bittersweet moments, as if we're all in on some tragic secret from the past that the mothers and fathers have yet to realize. It is these personal stories that Regan captures and borrows that really gives Autism: The Musical its heart, because without all of that the undeniably superwoman efforts of Elaine Hall would not ring with the same sort of joyous and unselfish beauty when we see it eventually come together.

The group of parents—among them a former Playboy centerfold and a famous rock star—open up with surprising ease, allowing Regan's camera into their homes, often when things are not going so well. There's the onscreen dissolving of a marriage, or the couple who sit down with a lawyer, only to have a reality that they may have been denying spelled out in coldly impersonal terms. The unimaginable stress carried by all of these individuals is certainly an unfairly heavy load, and I lost track on how many times I wondered what I would have—or could have—done in this or that situation. And I don't think I would have been able to carry it off half as well, if at all.

There is no doubt you will shed many tears when you watch this. That's just the cold hard facts, my friend, so be prepared. But it's the kind of tears that come when you find yourself being inspired, or moved by some kind of natural, untainted sweetness that can often times come from unexpected places. In the end, Autism: The Musical is less about the play than it is about the players, though certainly the eventual performance is a terrific and sweet coda. Regan has invested us emotionally in these children by that point, and even looking at the beaming, apprehensive faces of the parents in the audience it is difficult to not share in their joy and heartbreak. Even if it is just for 93 minutes.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The doc is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. This isn't the sharpest image transfer I've ever seen from Docurama, and quality waffles dramatically, depending on the location (not including the understandably imperfect home video footage). The controlled interview segments, naturally, fare the best, with generally strong colors, though some of the other "on location" portions occasionally have extremely poor black levels.

Not a particularly striking transfer, but it does nothing at all to diminish the film's dramatics in any way.

Image Transfer Grade: C+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Audio is presented in a basic, by-the-numbers 2.0 stereo mix. Voices are generally clear, and the track works best when there is only one person speaking. There's a slight bit of distortion in spots, usually when there's a lot of individuals speaking at once. As with the image portion, the audio is not a showcase, but it delivers with more than enough clarity so that the strength of the message far outweighs the limitations of the delivery method.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back, Air Guitar Nation, A Crude Awakening, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
12 Deleted Scenes
Production Notes
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Not much here, in terms of quantity. Inside there's a 6-page color booklet, outlining additional autism resources, info on The Miracle Project, with mini-bios of the kids and leader Elaine Hall.

On the disc itself there's a block of 12 deleted scenes (34m:51s), which really ends up elevating the level of the supplements up a notch. Clearly these were cut just to keep the doc on track, but the coverage is remarkably insightful, and if you're like me you'll be eager for anything more on the kids and their families once the main film ends.

The rest of the extras include an onscreen text bio of director Tricia Regan, some info on the organization Autism Speaks, and a small lot of Docurama trailers. The disc is cut into 18 chapters, and does not feature any subtitle options.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

Autism: The Musical really packs a punch, and is both immensely inspiring and uncontrollably heartbreaking. I really defy anyone to holdback the waterworks while viewing this, though for as emotionally powerful as this film is, there is an underlying wave of purely unfettered joy, beauty and courage.

Highly recommended.


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