Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bandslam: Slammin' good fun

Bandslam (2009) • View trailer for Bandslam
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for very mild sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.13.09
Buy DVD: Bandslam• Buy Blu-Ray: Bandslam [Blu-ray]

Only in the movies can a shy, tongue-tied high school nerd wind up locking lips with both the gorgeous lead from the High School Musical franchise and the hotter, sexier half of the real-world pop duo Aly & AJ.

But hey: That's why we love cinema, right? It's the ultimate in wish-fulfillment.
Sa5m (Vanessa Hudgens, left) watches warily as Will (Gaelan Connell) becomes
ever-more attracted to Charlotte (Aly Michalka), who "can't be trusted." The
emotional angst notwithstanding, few high school boys could complain about
being in such close proximity to these two hotties.

Director Todd Graff's Bandslam is a lively, frequently charming underdog saga: the sort of musical fairy tale Hollywood has done superbly since the genre was born in the 1930s.

Although not quite as squeaky-clean as Disney's High School Musical series, I expect this film will play quite successfully to the same audience. The only nod toward being "edgy" is that the music involved here is more rock 'n' reggae, with an occasional glimpse of punk.

It seems to have become something of a cliché for today's geeky high school underdogs to be alt-music savants, and Will Burton (Gaelan Connell) is no exception. As a recent transplant to a New Jersey high school that is obsessed with an annual band competition  Austin, Texas, locations actually stand in for Jersey throughout this film  Will hopes to remain a quiet part of the wallpaper, content to air his starry-eyed hopes and dreams in long, rambling e-mail letters sent to (of all people) David Bowie.

Needless to say, Bowie never answers.

But anonymity isn't in the cards for Will, who winds up the object of attention on two fronts. During his first lunch period, he meets another misfit: a quiet, neglected bookworm (Vanessa Hudgens) who has dubbed herself Sa5m. ("The 5 is silent.") At the same time, some chance remarks about the early alternative music scene prompt "reformed" cheerleader Charlotte Banks (Aly Michalka) to invite Will to critique the efforts of her garage band.

I could make a snide comment about the utter ridiculousness of a gal as adorable as Hudgens being cast as a neglected wallflower, but hey: You gotta go with the flow.

Charlotte's reasons for Will's assistance turn out to be somewhat complicated. She and fellow bandmates Bug (Charlie Saxton) and Omar (Timothy Jo) used to be part of her egotistical ex-boyfriend's group, The Glory Dogs: the school's No. 1 hope for Bandslam championship for several consecutive years. But after just missing the title the previous year, Glory Dogs frontman Ben (Scott Porter) dumped his sidemen and replaced them with  we're to assume  better performers.

Stung by this  and for an additional reason that only becomes clear much later  Charlotte forms her own group with the cast-offs, with the hopeless notion of giving jerky Ben and his new Glory Dogs some serious competition.

Hopeless, that is, until Will comes along.

With the instinctive savvy of a veteran producer, Will instantly recognizes the best way to augment the sound of Charlotte's trio, which blossoms into a nonet after the hand-picked arrival of Basher (Ryan Donowho), a talented drummer with anger-management issues; Irene (Elvy Yost), an uptight cello player; Kim (Lisa Chung), a classically trained keyboardist; and a backing trio  sax, trombone and trumpet  composed of Benjamin Kessler, Andrew Glen Rector and Juan Lopez.

Let it be acknowledged: These kids sound great.

Will also comes up with a killer name for the group: I Can't Go On, I'll Go On.

But while trying to figure out if the slightly older Charlotte is just a good friend or Something More, Will also finds himself attracted to Sa5m, who is the withdrawn yin to Charlotte's vivacious yang. Although Charlotte is attentive, she's wrapped up in the whole band thing; Sa5m, in great contrast, seems more willing to spend time with Will on his terms.

Assuming, of course, that he can resist being the attentive moth helplessly drawn to Charlotte's incandescent glow.

"Don't trust her," Sa5m repeatedly warns our smitten hero. "She's trouble."

Graff and co-scripter Josh A. Cagen deftly blend the best of these two parallel stories: the building excitement of a band that finds its own sound, and the gentler, sweeter bonding between Will and Sa5m. The highlight of this tentative courtship comes when Will finally shares his passions during a day spent in New York's funky music stores, which climaxes with a visit to the sad remnants of the now-defunct CBGB, the East Village nightclub synonymous with the underground music scene for 35 years.

It's a poignant scene  oddly powerful, particularly for anybody who lives and breathes music  and one much like the equally touching moment when Kat Dennings shows off her father's recording studio to a gape-mouthed Michael Cera, in Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist.

Connell and Hudgens sell their corresponding scene quite well.

Connell makes a great misfit, nicely balancing his mounting disbelief at the fact that he's actually hanging out with some of the "cool kids," with the sort of unrestrained enthusiasm  about music  guaranteed to embarrass him at unexpected moments. Will also has an amusing relationship with his single mother, Karen (Lisa Kudrow), who finds herself on the receiving end of unexpected attention from Basher (who likes "older women").

Kudrow and Connell have several droll mother/son encounters; most of us could only dream of having a parent so understanding. (More of that cinematic wish-fulfillment, of course.)

To a degree, Hudgens channels Gabriella from the High School Musical films, particularly the first one, when her character still was shy about herself. Sa5m is a bit more reserved, and Hudgens is reasonably credible as a girl who hides behind dark fingernail polish, layers of clothing and her ubiquitous books.

And you may start to wonder if Hudgens actually is starring in a music-laden film without breaking into song herself ... but be patient.

Michalka is a sassy ball of energy: a vivacious talent who probably has a respectable film career in her future. She's completely natural on camera, and she handles her role's challenges  Charlotte has the story's most demanding emotional arc  quite persuasively.

My only casting complaint is the usual one for such films: Although they're playing high school kids, too many members of this cast look like they belong in college ... in other words, 17 going on 21. I mean, really: Porter is 30!

Graff knows the milieu, and he orchestrates the on-screen action against a continuous soundtrack that only occasionally involves the stars; this really isn't a musical, but rather a drama with well-placed band sequences. And I suspect that much of Connell's dialogue during the visit to CBGB comes from Graff's heart, since he played the venue years ago with his own band, The Pedantics.

He certainly builds this film to a crowd-pleasing climax that involves a few mild plot twists and a reggae-flavored rendition of David Gates' "Everything I Own": Bread by way of UB40.

Talk about sending patrons home on a high note...

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