Bandslam (2009)

29 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Bandslam” is advertised as sort of a “High School Musical” or “Camp Rock” clone. If you’re not familiar with those two references, you probably have a kid or two in your family that can explain. But you think that the actual film “Bandslam” really is a clone of those two full-of-pep, bit overly energetic Disney Channel movies, you’d be wrong. This is a really good teen film with fully-realized teen characters, snappy dialogue, good coming-of-age drama, and entertainment.

On second thought, this does have a lot of music and teenagers involved. And it is a feel-good movie. I don’t think it’s fair to blame the advertisements for selling it as an “HSM” clone but the film doesn’t go for the pep and energy all throughout.

The film’s central character is Will Burton (Gaelon Connell), who lives in a world all his own. He goes to high school, is new in town, and doesn’t fit in, like most teenagers. But he knows a lot about music and has a shrine dedicated to David Bowie. (The film’s narration comes from his writing letters to Bowie, who never responds.) He even judges people by what kind of music they listen to.

One day, he meets popular, attractive high school senior Charlotte (Aly Michalka, from that lame Disney Channel sitcom “Phil of the Future,” and of Aly & AJ). She shows him her band, complete with a drum loop, bass-playing Flea-wannabe “Bug,” and electric guitar-playing Asian-American British-wannabe Omar. They want to enter “Bandslam,” a battle-of-the-bands competition that everyone in school anxiously awaits. But Will doesn’t think they have a chance. Charlotte knows he knows a lot about music, so she appoints him as band manager.

One of the best things about this film is that the film and its stars really do know a lot about music. The script is very fresh and funny with references to Bowie, Springsteen, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the CBGB, a legendary New York club that was the start of punk rock. The film also delivers not the kind of teen characters we would expect in a film like this—an example is the third central character Sa5m (the “5” is silent). Vanessa Hudgens (HSM alum) portrays Sa5m not the way I would’ve imagined. She is NOT the Girl Who’s Full of Pep and Enthusiasm Who Falls for the Guy that she usually plays. Here, she’s an original—a loner, secret-keeping girl dressed usually in black who talks deadpan to keep herself from stuttering. She befriends Will as they work together on a human studies project and she has a musical talent too.

As the band—now labeled (get this) I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On—gains new members, which include a drummer with anger issues and a girl who plays classic piano, but is really good on a pop keyboard, Will starts to have fun for the first time in this new town. He teaches the band to improve at crucial points (I love the scene in which he makes them start out with “blue-beat” and work their way up), his friendship with Charlotte grows, as well as his friendship (and possible relationship) with Sa5m.

“Bandslam” is a very satisfying film—it’s intelligent in the way that it avoids the teen film clichés and gives us original, quirky characters and is also nonoffensive. Here’s a nice touch—none of the three main female characters (including Lisa Kudrow, who has a good role as Will’s supportive single mother) fall into the romantic comedy trap. Only one scene in this film falls into that category and that is the scene that we’ve all seen before—Sa5m wants Will to go see “Evil Dead 2” with her, but Charlotte has provided tickets to a rock band and Will totally forgets about the date with Sa5m, upsetting her. But luckily, the movie redeems itself with a satisfying scene in which Will and Sa5m present their own human study project.

The actors here are very good. Newcomer Gaelon Connell is especially good as the film’s lead—a likable awkward teen that makes us feel for him in the moments of drama (yes, there is drama involved, so take that into consideration). Vanessa Hudgens is compelling here as well—lovely singing voice too, but I already knew that. What also surprised me was the performance by Aly Michalka. After seeing her as the peppy, dumb girl in “Phil of the Future,” I was surprised by how well she can act and be taken seriously as an actress. When she shows how upset she is in those moments of drama, we believe her. We wonder what she’s doing hanging around with a few outcasts for a band, but the answer is revealed later in the movie and I will not give it away. Lisa Kudrow, as the mother, avoids the clichés of the overprotective mother and gives credible reasons for why she’s concerned about her son.

I enjoyed “Bandslam” very much. It has a good script and appealing characters—it does have a competition at the end between I Don’t Go On, I Go On and Charlotte’s boyfriend’s band, but even that scene is well done too. Parents, if you’re looking for a “High School Musical/Camp Rock” clone to dump the kids to see, my advice—keep looking, because “Bandslam” has a lot more on its mind than the advertisements gave itself credit for. I liked it very much.

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