As teen musicals go, ‘Bandslam’ rocks
Imagine the shock of “High School Musical’’ fans, Disney Channel addicts, their parents, and their deeply unwilling older siblings who sit down for “Bandslam’’ and are confronted with . . . a good movie. Not an original movie, but a good one: pleasurable, smart, aware that pop music has a history that goes back further than Britney Spears’s first CD. Summit Entertainment executives, in their attempt to colonize what little remains of your children’s mindshare, have done the unthinkable. They have handed one of their movies to an intelligent writer-director and allowed him to breathe life into it.
That writer-director is Todd Graff, a former actor who made the wonderful, if ragged, 2003 musical theater summer camp movie “Camp.’’ “Bandslam’’ is “Camp’’ with rock ’n’ roll instead of show tunes, but its roots go back to the Busby Berkeley backstagers and Mickey-and-Judy let’s-put-on-a-show musicals of the 1930s. It helps immeasurably that the script is informed with a deep-dish appreciation of rock lore along the lines of “School of Rock.’’ When two of the teenage characters argue whether the Velvet Underground was better before or after Lou Reed kicked John Cale out of the band, you know this movie’s doing something right. (Maybe not believably so, but who cares?)
Gaelan Connell, a ringer for the young Daniel Stern, plays Will Burton, a lanky high schooler relocated from Cincinnati to New Jersey as the movie begins. He’s a self-conscious misfit with a brightly brittle single mom, Karen (Lisa Kudrow), and an encyclopedic knowledge of pop history. As such, he’s scooped up by Charlotte (Aly Michalka), a distressed former cheerleader aching to prove her singing chops in the upcoming multi-school Bandslam competition. Charlotte’s a user but a harmless one, and both she and Will are toting dark secrets that will get aired before the final credits roll. (Don’t worry, Mom; they’re PG secrets.)
Will becomes the band’s coolly capable manager, talking the lead guitarist (Charlie Saxton) down from his Flea worship, adding a horn section, a keyboardist, and an amusingly antisocial drummer (Ryan Donowho) with a Stacy’s-mom crush on Karen. He gives them a new name: I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On (any relation to “Waiting for Godot’’ coincidental and unattributed). So obsessed does Will become that he neglects his class partner, the pining Goth-lite girl Sa5m (the 5 is silent; ah, high school). As for his studies, no one ever does homework in movies like this.
Sa5m is played by Vanessa Hudgens - yes, Princess Sparkle of the “HSM’’ franchise has gone over to the dark side. Sort of. Hudgens is likable as this diluted version of Ally Sheedy in “The Breakfast Club,’’ and you can tell she relishes not being the center of attention, but it’s only a matter of time before Sa5m ascends to her proper place in the movie’s scheme. Hudgens is, verily, the Ruby Keeler of her generation, which means she’s going to go out there and become a star whether it makes sense or not.
For all its formulaic touches - I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On has to go up against a group led by Charlotte’s former boyfriend (Scott Porter), a preening rock-jock - “Bandslam’’ wins you over. The characters wield their cynicism only to paper over their adolescent insecurities; underneath they’re earnest without being saps. Within the context of modern family comedies and the vast enabling wasteland of tweener TV, these people feel almost three-dimensional.
And the music is the real deal, for the most part. A few sludgy teen power ballads have snuck in, because, I guess, Hudgens and Michalka (of the teen-pop sister act Aly and AJ) have to sell the soundtrack CD. But “Bandslam’’ is narrated in the form of Will’s regular e-mails to his idol David Bowie (e-mails that go unanswered until - I can say no more), and the movie’s awareness of rock’s family tree is democratic enough to embrace Wilco, Cheap Trick, Peter Bjorn & John, and an only mildly ridiculous ska version of Bread’s “Everything I Own.’’ All that’s missing, in retrospect, is hip-hop, R&B, soul, or any other form of genuine Afro-Am pop. If the movie isn’t the usual white bread, neither is it more than a loaf of processed whole wheat.
Still, will the little girls understand? Mine did. (I know, I keep dragging my daughters into these reviews, but, trust me, this time it’s relevant.) The older couldn’t be bothered; the younger came to the screening expecting to scoff. Her tastes are bracketed by her dad’s love of all things post-punk and her peers’ addiction to KISS 108, which, as it turns out, is pretty much the sweet spot mined by “Bandslam.’’ She and the other kids in the theater came out glowing, their inner playlists both confirmed and unexpectedly broadened. Forget the tie-in CD; the first thing my daughter did was go home and burn her own. That’s a tiny empowerment, but it counts.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, this review of the movie "Bandslam" in the "g" section incorrectly identified the film's studio. "Bandslam" is a Summit Entertainment film.