What It Is
Bandslam is an energetic, often clever high school musical sort of movie. It tweaks the formula just enough to seem original. As the movie begins, Will Burton (Gaelan Connell) and his mother Karen (Lisa Kudrow) move to Lodi, New Jersey, where he’ll be facing yet another new set of classmates. It’s a routine Will knows too well, feeling lonely and like a misfit. This time, he meets two intriguing girls right away: sweet, well-read, and gothy Sa5m (Vanessa Hudgeons), who informs him “the 5 is silent,” and boisterously self-confident former cheerleader Charlotte (Alyson Michalka).
Immediately assigned to work with Sa5m in Human Studies class (each must present a biography of the other to the other students), he’s also recruited by Charlotte to manage her band, in preparation for a big contest called “Bandslam.” (He names the band “I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On,” conveying how he feels about his own involvement.) Each project takes Will in a different direction. It turns out he’s very good at encouraging the mostly isolated Sa5m to trust him, and also a terrific band manager: he mixes horns, keyboards, and a cello with the usual guitar-bass-drums trio to come up with a dense, fun sound, getting all his artists to express themselves and find new rhythms, also a process based in trust. Along the way, he writes letters-as-journal-entries to David Bowie, struggles with a mysterious and inevitably revealed past, argues and makes up with his very cool mom, and finds true love.
Why It’s Fun
Though its stars Disney veterans Hudgens and Michalka, Bandslam is not High School Musical. Neither is it Bring It On, though it shares elements of both films. Depending on you feel about such things, you’ll be thankful or briefly disappointed that it’s not so bright and poppy as that other, more famous High School Musical franchise. No matter your first thought, give it a few minutes and you’ll be hooked: if the plot is regular, the dialogue is sharp and the songs are decent (most performed by the alternative Dutch musician XL Junkie).
Most of all, the kids are great, even the supporting players (especially Charlie Saxton as the bassist/Flea-wannabe named Bug and Elvy Yost as Irene the quietly dynamic cellist). Will is amiably quirky, Sa5m adorable but not sentimental (and her big finale song is sensational), and Charlotte is not exactly what she seems.
Who’s Going To Love It
The movie appeals to kids of all ages who enjoy singing and dancing, nuanced but eventually tidy romances, and charming young performers. The kids refer obliquely to emerging sexual desire, Will and Charlotte and then Will and Sa5m share very nice kisses. Will’s knowledge of and affection for the ’70s—glam rock, punk, and David Bowie especially—makes him interesting to a range of ages. (His ringtone is “Changes”: cute but fresh, too.)
What To Be Aware Of
The movie includes a running joke where the band’s high-school-aged drummer Basher (Ryan Donowho) has a crush on Karen, making eyes at her and the occasional pseudo-lascivious comment. It also features a backstory about an unreliable father (he never appears on screen, but the reason for his incarceration, drunk driving, comes up in a briefly upsetting revelation). It also features another father who dies of a disease, also off-screen, but affecting his child and her friends. Some bullying behavior includes name-calling and pushing, And Will reminds his eager-to-talk mother it is “inappropriate” for her to sit in the bathroom while he showers. The boys range from nerdy to arrogant to endearing, and reveal exceptional creativity in the midst of the prescribed plot. But it’s the girls—Sa5m and Charlotte and even Karen, Will’s mother—who are most adventurous, most bighearted, and most fascinating as they come out of their shells.
8 out of 10
Director: Todd Graff
Cast: Vanessa Hudgens, Alyson Michalka, Gaelen Connell, Lisa Kudrow, Charlie Saxton, Tim Jo, Scott Porter
Studio: Walden Media
US Premiere: August 14, 2009
UK Premiere: August 12, 2009