The plot involves the widely successful orchestra conductor Pierre Morhange (Jacques Perrin), who returns to France when his mother dies. He reminisces about his childhood inspirations when he and his former classmate Pépinot (Didier Flamand) read the diary of their old music teacher Clément Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot). In 1949, a young Morhange is the badly behaved son of single mother Violette (Marie Bunel). He attends the boarding institution for "difficult" boys, Fond de L'Étang ("Bottom of the Pond"), presided over by strict headmaster Monsieur Rachin (François Berléand). New teacher Clement Mathieu brightens up the school and assembles a choir, leading to the discovery of Morhange's musical and physical talents and a transformation in the children.
At the 77th Academy Awards, The Chorus was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Song (the latter for "Vois sur ton chemin", listed as "Look to Your Path").
In 1999, Pierre Morhange, a conductor performing in the United States, is informed that his mother has died before a concert. After the performance in which he conducted the Künstlerleben Waltz by Johann Strauss II, he returns to his home in France for her funeral. An old friend named Pépinot arrives at his door with a diary which belonged to their teacher, Clément Mathieu. They proceed to read it together.
In 1949, fifty years earlier, Clément Mathieu, a failed musician, arrives at Fond de l'Étang ("Bottom of the Pond"), a French boarding school for "troubled" boys, to work as a supervisor. At the gates, he sees a young boy, Pépinot, waiting for Saturday at the school's gate, where he says his father will pick him up. The viewers later learn that his parents were killed in the Second World War, but Pépinot does not know about this. Mathieu discovers the boys being ruthlessly punished by the headmaster Rachin, and attempts to use humour and kindness to win them over. When a booby trap set by Le Querrec injures the school's elderly caretaker Maxence, Mathieu keeps the culprit's identity from the headmaster, while encouraging him to nurse the caretaker during his recovery. On discovering the boys singing rude songs about him, Mathieu forms a plan: he will teach them to sing, and form a choir as a form of discipline. He groups the boys into their voice types, but one student, Morhange, refuses to sing. Mathieu catches Morhange singing to himself, discovers he has a wonderful singing voice, and awards him solo parts on the condition that he behaves.
Morhange's single mother, Violette, arrives at the school. When Mathieu goes to explain that Morhange cannot be visited because he has been locked up as a punishment, he finds himself feeling sorry for, and attracted to, the boy's beleaguered mother, and instead tells her that Morhange is at the dentist. Meanwhile, a cruel, "perverted" boy named Mondain (played by Gregory Gatignol) arrives and begins causing trouble by bullying the others and generally being rebellious. After stealing a watch, he is locked up for two weeks. The choir is improving rapidly with Morhange as its lead soloist; the children are happier, and the faculty less strict—even Rachin begins to loosen up, playing football with the boys and making a paper aeroplane. After Mondain is released from lock-up, he runs away. At the same time, all the school's money disappears. Rachin beats Mondain, who in turn attempts to strangle the headmaster. Rachin hands him over to the police, despite not knowing the location of the stolen money, and disbands the choir. This causes Mathieu to teach his choir "underground," practicing at night in their sleeping chamber.
Mathieu continues to meet Morhange's mother, who is unaware of his attraction to her. He plans to help her son win a scholarship to the music conservatory in Lyon. One day she blithely informs him that she has met someone else: an engineer. Mathieu is dejected, but expresses his strained happiness as he watches her leave in the engineer's car. The Countess, a sponsor of the school, finds out about the choir: they perform before her and others, and Morhange enchants the audience with his solo. Mathieu discovers that another boy, Corbin, stole the money that Mondain was accused of taking. Despite this, Rachin refuses to accept Mondain back at the school—Mathieu is upset at this injustice. When Rachin departs to accept an award from the board after claiming responsibility for the choir, Mathieu and Maxence rebel by taking the boys on a paper chase. While they are out, Mondain returns and sets fire to the school with a cigarette. Mathieu is fired for breaking the rules, even though he saved the boys' lives, and Maxence is suspended. As Mathieu leaves, the boys—forbidden to say goodbye—lock themselves in their classroom, sing and throw messages out of the window on paper planes. Touched, he walks away, musing about how he has failed and nobody knows of his existence.
Back in the present, Morhange finishes reading the diary and recounts what happened afterwards: he won his scholarship to the conservatory, and the headmaster Rachin was fired for his brutal discipline. Mathieu, Pépinot relates, continued to give music lessons quietly for the rest of his life.
The final scene shows Mathieu waiting for his bus after being fired. As he boards it, he looks back and finds Pépinot running after him, insisting that he come too. Initially Mathieu refuses because it is not allowed, and leaves Pépinot behind. Suddenly, the bus stops and Mathieu gives in: the two board the bus together. Morhange says that Pépinot finally got his wish, for he and Mathieu left on a Saturday, showing Mathieu raised Pépinot.Gérard Jugnot as Clément Mathieu, a supervisor and failed musician.
François Berléand as Rachin, the strict headmaster of Fond de L'Étang.
Kad Merad as Chabert, a physical education teacher.
Jean-Paul Bonnaire as Maxence, the school's elderly caretaker.
Marie Bunel as Violette Morhange, the single mother of Pierre.
Jean-Baptiste Maunier as Pierre Morhange, a poorly behaved boy with a beautiful singing voice.
Jacques Perrin as adult Morhange, now a popular conductor.
Maxence Perrin as Pépinot, a young boy who refuses to believe his parents are dead.
Didier Flamand as adult Pépinot
Grégory Gatignol as Mondain, a troubled and malevolent older boy.
Cyril Bernicot as Le Querrec, the perpetrator of a booby trap which injures Maxence.
After making the short film Les Tombales, director Christophe Barratier was looking for a subject for his first feature film. He noticed that many of his ideas were linked to his childhood, and the emotions he felt between the ages of four and eight. Coming from a musical background, he also wanted to tell a story linked to music. The themes of childhood and music made him think of the film La Cage aux rossignols, which he had seen on television at a young age and which "touched [him] profoundly". Barratier told his idea to Gérard Jugnot, whom he had known for quite a long time and with whom he shared a taste for old French cinema and actors such as Noël-Noël; Jugnot liked it, but thought that the film would have to be set in the past, otherwise his character would be transformed into someone who "teaches rapping in the suburbs". Barratier said he did not think about setting the film in the present time because "Clément Mathieu [would have] other priorities, he would have nothing in common with a 1950s music teacher". Barratier then began writing the script; Jugnot said that the first version somewhat "lacked roughness", and co-writer Philippe Lopes-Curval got involved. He collaborated with Barratier to strengthen the story and develop the psychology of characters such as Rachin—for whom the children are "the symbol of a failed professional life"—and Chabert.
The director was keen that the role of the young Pierre Morhange should be played by a real singer, and the search for him was tedious. While touring large French choirs to choose the one to record the film's soundtrack, they discovered the 12-year-old Jean-Baptiste Maunier of Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Marc: Barratier described his voice as "exceptional and very moving", and composer Bruno Coulais said it was "incredible". They decided to cast him as Morhange and use the choir for the soundtrack, but that the rest of the choir would not play his classmates because the director did not want them to be professional actors. Instead, they looked for children near the filming location in Auvergne: casting director Sylvie Brocheré visited primary and secondary schools in Clermont-Ferrand, looking for children between the ages of six and 15. After over 2000 auditions, the roles were cast. Of all the children, only the Parisians Théodule Carré Cassaigne and Thomas Blumenthal had some small acting experience.
Principal photography took place on location at the Château de Ravel in Puy-de-Dôme. Foam and salt were used as artificial snow and green leaves were removed from the grounds, since the beginning of the movie was filmed in the summer, but set in the winter. Fog machines were also used around the castle, and walls were deliberately scorched and stripped of paint to give the surroundings a "dilapidated" look, since boarding schools at the time often suffered from poor funding and management. When filming his first scene in which his character Mondain tries to intimidate Clément Mathieu, Gatignol had trouble behaving menacingly towards Jugnot, who described him as "too nice". For the scene in which Morhange drops ink on Mathieu's head, gouache was used. During choir scenes, song lyrics were written on large cue cards and the classroom's blackboard to aid actors. The children who played the choir described how their singing improved through the duration of the shoot; Nicolas Porte, the choirmaster of Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Marc, said that this "means that the story we tell is credible". Bruno Coulais, the composer of the film's score, said that the children "are passionate about music", which is "some kind of escape to them".
The soundtrack for The Chorus was released on 3 May 2004 by Warner Bros. Records, and subsequently by Nonesuch Records in 2005 and Varèse Sarabande in 2012. It features the film's original score, which was composed by Bruno Coulais and performed by the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Deyan Pavlov) and the choir Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Marc. The album's 2012 release added five additional tracks, most of which are the orchestral backing tracks of other songs. Filmtracks summed it up by saying "for enthusiasts of boys' choirs and heartwarming, sentimental choral performances in general, The Chorus translates into a strong, albeit repetitive album." The soundtrack topped the albums chart in France for 11 weeks and reached number three in Belgium, before its United States release in early 2005. Around the same time, the live album Les Choristes en concert was released on both CD and DVD.
In the United States, the film was shown at multiple film festivals—including the Chicago International Film Festival, the Austin Film Festival, and the Heartland Film Festival—before opening in New York City and Los Angeles on 14 January 2005.
The film had a worldwide gross of $83,580,890 including $3,635,164 in the United States and Canada, $2,062,908 in the United Kingdom and $48,765,590 in its native France. It ranked 72 on the list of the highest-grossing films of 2005 worldwide, and 195 in the US and Canada.
The Chorus was released on DVD in France (as Les Choristes) on 27 October 2004 by Pathé. On 3 May 2005, Lionsgate released the film on DVD in the United States as The Chorus; on the same day, it was released by Alliance Films in Canada. On 11 July 2005, Pathé released a version with English subtitles in the United Kingdom.
The Chorus received mixed to positive reviews from critics. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 68% "Fresh" rating, indicating that most reviewed it positively, and summarises that "While predictable, this low-key heartwarmer manages to be uplifting without overdoing the sentiment." On Metacritic, the film holds an average score of 56 out of 100 based on 32 critics' reviews, none of which are classed as "negative". Peter Howell of the Toronto Star commended the film's "credible acting and outstanding score", saying they allowed it to "[rise] above feelgood status". The BBC's Matthew Leyland said "even though all the notes are predictable, the film hits them with a wit, warmth and gusto." Many critics felt that the film's format was predictable, and it was widely compared to other films about inspirational teachers, such as Dead Poets Society, Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Mr. Holland's Opus; The Salt Lake Tribune commented "if you've seen one inspirational-teacher melodrama ... you've seen this one, too" and criticised the movie's "one-note characters" and "plodding predictability". Of the title characters, critic Roger Ebert said: "Their influence will forever change the lives of their students, and we can see that coming from the opening frame", and that The Chorus "should have added something new and unexpected". Ebert also commented that "This feels more like a Hollywood wannabe than a French film."
At the 77th Academy Awards, The Chorus was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Song (the latter for "Vois sur ton chemin", listed as "Look to Your Path"). At the 58th British Academy Film Awards, the film was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (Christophe Barratier, Philippe Lopes-Curval) and Best Film Not in the English Language, and Bruno Coulais' score was nominated for Best Film Music. The film was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 62nd Golden Globe Awards. The 26th Young Artist Awards saw Jean-Baptiste Maunier nominated for Best Performance in an International Feature Film – Leading Young Performer, as well as The Chorus itself for Best International Feature Film. In France, the film won Best Sound (Nicolas Cantin, Nicolas Naegelen, Daniel Sobrino) and its score won Best Music Written for a Film at the 30th César Awards, where The Chorus received a further six nominations: Best Actor (Gérard Jugnot), Best Debut (Christophe Barratier), Best Director (Christophe Barratier), Best Film, Best Production Design (François Chauvaud) and Best Supporting Actor (François Berléand). In 2004, Bruno Coulais won the European Film Award for Best Composer; Gérad Jugnot was also nominated for Best Actor, and The Chorus for Best Film. The film later received the Lumières Award for Best Film in 2005, as well as London's Favourite French Film award in 2007.