Starring: Alyson Michalka, Vanessa Hudgens, Gaelan Connell, Lisa Kudrow
Writers: Josh A. Cagan/Todd Graff
Director: Todd Graff
Read any adolescent’s social networking page and you’ll more often that not see the line “music if my life” somewhere on it. While that phrase generally annoys me, they have a point: in my formative years, music was life. It defined me as a person, had the power to regulate moods, and the lyrics could say the words I could not so eloquently put down on a piece of paper (or in an AIM away message). I even had my own bands in high school, and we dreamt of riches and glory and just doing something to break the monotony of life. Bandslam, a film that came and went from theaters in August of 2009, captured this idea in a way that resonated with me far more than it had any right to, and even though I had a lot of personal biases against it (the fact it starred actresses that were farmed by the Disney Channel as an example), I not only liked the movie…I flat out embarrassingly loved it.
Bandslam centers around Will Burton (Gaelan Connell), who has moved to the small town of Lodi, New Jersey and has some family-related baggage he is trying to forget. He is a total music nut, with a vast collection of 70’s classics and an obsession with David Bowie in particular, going so far as to write him fan letters like a person would write in their diary. He is recruited by Charlotte Banks (Alyson Michalka), a girl who is hiding baggage of her own, to help her fledgling band get good enough to enter a contest known as “Bandslam”. “Bandslam” is a country wide battle of the bands for high schoolers in which the winning group receives a record deal. Will becomes the manager of this new band, naming them “I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On” and recruiting new members from all walks of high school life (the classical musician, the marching band, etc.) to create a new sound. As they prep for the upcoming battle, other situations begin to surface. The school’s most popular band “Ben Wheatley and the Glory Dogs”, headed up by Bean Wheatley (Scott Porter) are not exactly looking to lose the contest to a group founded by members he kicked out of his band. He is also still in love with Charlotte, who broke up with him last year, and is looking to get her back. Will, while fighting some feelings for Charlotte, is also falling for Sa5m (Vanessa Hudgens), a quiet bookworm who makes a habit out of shutting people out, but hides some musical talent of her own. Will has to deal with his feelings while getting the band ready and keeping his overbearing mother (Lisa Kudrow) at bay.
Now if you are anything like me (and if you aren’t you should be), you probably saw the name “Vanessa Hudgens” and instantly did not want to see it. Coupled with Michalka, who has own band “Aly and AJ” and a Disney Channel past, that’s a recipe for a bubblegum generic teen movie that does not capture anything unique or realistic about life as a teenager. Well people, pump your breaks, because Bandslam is the closest a teen movie has come to realism in a very long time. Each of the three main characters is fleshed out and actually has, how you say, personality. They aren’t just happy go lucky teenagers without problems…these people have baggage. Will’s past involves the nickname “Dewey” that’s related to his dad and an incident back in his old town. Charlotte has a father who’s sick and who is desperately trying to shun her cheerleader queen bee past. Sa5m (the 5 is silent by the way *rolls eyes*) speaks in a monotone voice and tries her best not to get involved with people, and hides rejection she experienced earlier in her life that keeps her from truly breaking out. I was flat out shocked that these characters actually had traits that not only were realistic, but relatable. I related to Will and how he copes with life through music, because that’s how I did it. I related to Charlotte because I’ve tried to become a better person and shun my not so great past, and I definitely related to Sa5m as I tend to barrier myself against people for fear of rejection (I know, throw the pity party after you finish reading).
Michalka and Hudgens even manage to pull the acting off. There are some pretty dramatic scenes in Bandslam that you would think would crumble them since they are the product of the Disney Channel, which doesn’t require their roster to actually try. However, try they do, and they succeed. They succeed to the point of where I can say…god this hard…I like Vanessa Hudgens. Her character and the way she portrayed her was endearing and I fell in love with the character and her attributes. After such a bubbly role in those High School Musical roles, it was a complete 180 in this movie and she manages to hold her own. Ditto for Michalka, who isn’t really known for her acting abilities, more for her music. Her character has some pretty intriguing layers and her big dramatic scene was powerful and excellent. I also need to give kudos to Lisa Kudrow. I was never a fan of Friends, but she played an excellent overprotective mother in Bandslam, infusing humor and sincerity on a level I was unaware she could do. It’s a pretty one dimensional role, but she rises above it.
The biggest acclaim acting wise is reserved for Gaelan Connell. He’s a mix of Michael Cera and Anton Yelchin, but he does absolutely amazing carrying the picture. He is definitely an actor that needs to be watched, and I can’t say enough about him. He’s not a pretty boy and looks like how a normal teenager would look and talks like a teenager would talk. He is a great find and hopefully he’ll be able to do adult roles when he finally leaves adolescence. At the very least, he can point to this movie for a good reason.
Bandslam also succeeds in the music as well. It’s simple and very PG-rated, but it’s catchy as hell and I found myself humming some of the songs afterwards. This could also just be my personal preference as they infused ska into the fake band and I am a big ska fan, but hey, biases are good right? They also brought in real bands to fill out the two fake bands for the competition, which were all damn good in their own right, if a little overly indie.
Bandslam is filled with music-related humor through out, and if you’re a music nerd, you’ll laugh at a lot of those jokes. The rest of the humor doesn’t rely on stupid PG staples and is actually pretty sophisticated and smart for a movie that is aimed at pre-teens and teens…which is probably why it failed at the box office sadly. They also turn some teen movie stereotypes on its head, namely with Will and the two girls. Who you expect would be the friend and who would be the girlfriend is completely different and I respected the route they chose. The script and story are incredibly impressive, and I was completely flabbergasted with how well it came out. This should be attributed to director Todd Graff and his excellent choice of shots. There is a particular scene where Will is at a Burning Hotels concert and his crowd surfing is intercut with Sa5m who is getting ready for a date with him that he won’t show up to. For some reason, that scene was so brilliant and good that I rewound it to watch it again.
Now having said that, there were a few minor issues (because I’m a negative nancy). Bandslam felt hampered by its PG rating. It had some pretty adult themes they could have explored, but they are glossed over because of the limitations a PG rating puts on what you can show. With a PG-13, they could have done a lot more and it would have been more freeing in terms of situations and, yes, language (look people, teenagers swear a lot). Also, once it passes the first hour, everything feels more jumbled than it should be, with Will and Sa5m’s subplot taking a back seat and then magically fixing itself really quick thirty minutes before the end. It felt more like they should have fixed it towards the end, and the movie ends up going out on more of a whimper than a bang. They also did not focus a lot on the rest of the band members which was sad because they were pretty funny and interesting in what little time they got, but it wasn’t their story so I can forgive that.
Yes Bandslam has a lot of problems, and yes it’s not the best movie in the history of the world (or of teen movies to be honest). But if you’ve ever been in a band or remember how much music mattered to you when you were growing up, you will love Bandslam for its pretty realistic portrayal of teenagers and how music can save and shape them as human beings. If you have kids, have them watch this and cross your fingers because they may be inspired to express themselves and start a band as opposed to moping all the time and hanging out on the internet (let them read Film Calamity though, that’s like a necessity). Bandslam had no right to be this good…but it is anyway. It is definitely worth your time.