Admit it: You dismissed and ignored Bandslam on its release last summer because it looked like Another Bland Teen Musical. Surprise! It’s a fresh, uplifting, and often very funny riff on the formula. Bandslam doesn’t totally reinvent the musical teen rom-com, but it does hit all the right notes.
There’s some sort of Industry conspiracy against small, enjoyable rock-based teen rom-coms released in August. A few summers ago the perfectly decent The Rocker came and went without much fuss—in part because it was judged as a failed starring vehicle for The Office’s Rainn Wilson, instead of appreciated for its real strength: a likeable young ensemble cast including Josh Gad and Emma Stone.
And it’s downright criminal what happened to the similarly themed Bandslam last summer. I know it’s a cliché, not to mention a fool’s errand, to try to second-guess the motivations behind studio marketing and releasing, but why the hell wasn’t the smart and entertaining Bandslam given more of a push, more of a chance in theaters? Watch it (please!) and tell me it’s not better, more likable and more effective a young-adult rom-com than 17 Again or Hannah Montana: The Movie. Ah but that’s the thing: Zac Efron and Miley Cyrus are hot, sellable commodities. But I guess Efron’s High School Musical co-star and publicity-stunt girlfriend Vanessa Hudgens is seen as lesser, perhaps damaged goods.
Okay, I’ll be fair—I heard about Bandslam last year (as it was shuffled into theaters partly as a billboard for the new New Moon trailer, and then quickly yanked out of most them two weeks later) and like most folks tired of teen music movies, I scoffed and mocked. After all, we’d had enough of Miley and The Jonai and HSM, and Bandslam felt like more of the bland same. Except it’s not at all. It’s a witty, musically sharp teen comedy that certainly knows its John Hughes, but also, like School of Rock before it, knows its rock and roll.
The plot is familiar: Outcast rock nerd Will (relative newcomer Gaelan Connell charmingly giving it the full Cusack LaBeouf ride) and his single mom (Lisa Kudrow) move from Cincinnati to Jersey. There, in a new school obsessed with its annual Bandslam rock competition, Will finds his David Bowie fixation and encyclopedic musical knowledge make him halfway cool, even with anti-social emo girls like Hudgens’s moody Sa5m. (The “5” is silent). Of course eventually there are love triangles, misunderstandings, secrets, and rivalries; but for the most part Bandslam bops happily, hopefully along.
The film is directed and co-written by former actor Todd Graff (remember the mousy guy with the rat in The Abyss?) who also wrote and directed 2003’s musically-themed Camp. Bandslam is no edgy, subversive indie flick that sets out to undermine conventions, but nor is it content to let those conventions play out without a knowing tweak and twist. In addition to better-than-usual teen dialogue and humor, Graff manages to teach kids what ska is; call out the Velvet Underground, the Violent Femmes, and the Arcade Fire; celebrate the soothing effects of Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman;” and slip in a Samuel Beckett shout-out. (Granted, sometimes the hip references are a little showy–one of the movie’s few off notes is a fawning field trip to the former site of CBGB.)
I admit Bandslam pushes many of my 40-something, indie-rock buttons, making it more palatable to me than to its poppier peers. (Like Will, I worshiped at the altar of Bowie in high school–including classics like “Rebel Rebel,” “Changes,” and “Star” on the soundtrack is a quick way to my Thin White Heart.) But it’s not just Adventureland for the teenagers—all those cool music nods are balanced out by a solid young cast. With his dry wit and instant likeability, Connell is a fine, dorky anchor, and hopefully we’ll be seeing more of him soon. I can’t say I ever paid much attention to Hudgens in the HSM movies, but she does no harm and shines appropriately when needed. (After all, there must be more roles out there for which Mila Kunis is unavailable.) Especially winning is Alyson Michalka as the former cheerleader who’d rather be singing Cheap Trick than shaking pom-pons.
Throughout it all, Graff continually switches up the stereotypes: Will doesn’t turn out to be a lead singer or cool guitarist, but rather a natural band manager. The “cool” bassist is a nerderific spaz named Bug (Charlie Saxton, another name to watch for—it’s easy to imagine him having a terrific indie acting career). And Michalka’s Charlotte takes the usual dorky-sidekick-with-romantic-shading role (aka Ducky/Watts) and plants it inside a tall, blond Popular Kid.
As in School of Rock or The Commitments, much of Bandslam’s energy comes from the sounds themselves. Sure, this is a musical fantasy: The kids quickly pull together a powerful, tight neo-ska band–complete with horns and strings—that sounds amazing on first try. And for all the shout-outs to Alt, Punk, and New Wave Rock Gods, the big finale performance is a middle-of-the-road, pop-friendly version of ska. But none of that diminishes the simple, infectious audio joy Bandslam lays down along the way.
It’s sad that fear of High School Musical burnout may have kept people from embracing Bandslam as the small, smart delight it is. Especially since a few weeks after the film’s release and quick disappearance from theaters, Glee came along on TV and reminded everyone that kids making music while juggling lite drama has been and always will be a timeless entertainment value. Just don’t let Bandslam sneak by you a second time.