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Dear David Bowie...
on March 25, 2010
Take a chance on this unexpected gem, do, and never mind that you may have gone "Uh oh!" when you first noticed Vanessa Hudgens's name on the billing (although, okay, I did sneakily like the first HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL). I walked into BANDSLAM unawares, didn't really know what it was about, and I ended up pleased and tremendously entertained. I guess that's when the taste is sweetest, when you're not expecting too much. BANDSLAM has more in common with NICK & NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST than it does with HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL.
Gaelan Connell, I haven't seen him before, but he seems a natural at playing the nervous, ill-fitting-in, fumbly role and, somewhere, a threatened Michael Cera has to be biting his fingernails. This kid is also glib enough that he even reminds me of vintage young John Cusack. Connell plays iPod-attached misfit Will Burton who is newly moved to Lodi, New Jersey, and he's actually glad to be in the Garden State, so you get an idea of how miserable his past existence must have been. He now attends Van Buren High School, where he learns that the biggest event is the Bandslam, this annual Tri-State Battle of the Bands (winner gets a record deal).
Will loves Indie rock; he regularly writes to David Bowie in this thoroughly one-way correspondence relationship. Will also happens to be a walking encyclopedia of rock & roll knowledge, and this may or may not have something to do with his being befriended by the very cool and popular ex-cheerleader Charlotte (Aly Michalka, of the pop duo Aly & AJ). Charlotte fronts a lowly garage band, and she dreams of competing on Bandslam, although her band would have to contend with her school's own juggernaut rock group, Ben Wheatly & the Glory Dogs (Ben Wheatly, by the way, is Charlotte's ex). Will, thru no fault of his own, becomes the manager of Charlotte's tiny band. Juuuust a bit out of his depth, he's got eight weeks to get good at this gig before the big Battle of the Bands swings around. For Will Burton, it's time to come out of his shell.
Will also meets Sa5m (Hudgens, branching out from sweetness and light). Sa5m - the "5" is silent - is quirky and brooding and talks a bit like MTV's Daria. Sa5m also has a secret. She and Will become partners in a classroom project, and one of my four best moments in the movie has to do with Will's part of the project. The other three moments? They're all musical numbers and performed by Will and Charlotte's band.
BANDSLAM is a coming-of-age movie and it isn't vanilla or moronic, and you could've knocked me over with a feather when I later realized this was a PG-rated film. But, yeah, looking back, I don't remember any profanity. Or gross-out content or mean-spiritedness for its own sake. Instead there's an emotional weight, a passion for music and an edginess and tons of smart screenplay. There's even possibly the most awkward first kiss in history. There isn't a bad performance, only varying shades of very good and terrific. It helps that there's a complexity to the characters. Gaelan Connell, endlessly relatable, easily carries the film. Aly Michalka comes in and blows me away, and I love that there are different sides to her unpredictable character, and a bite. And she has pipes, stronger than Vanessa Hudgens'. It's hard not to rock out to her rendition of Steve Wynn's "Amphetamine." Meanwhile, Vanessa Hudgens steps a bit out of her comfort zone, and I liked it. I didn't think Hudgens and emo would work, and yet it does.
And Lisa Kudrow is Lisa Kudrow, and that's always a good thing for the movie audience.
It wouldn't have worked so well if the music hadn't been so great. The actors sing the songs and play the instruments, and is it me or does that bass player remind you of a young Stephen King? I love that the little garage band develops its own sound, and "I Can't Go On, I'll Go On" is an absolutely inspired name for a rock band. Cameron Crowe will probably appreciate "I Can't Go On, I'll Go On." John Hughes probably would have liked this movie. I always like it when the nerd makes good.
DVD Special Features: the "Making Of" documentary (21 minutes long); commentary track with Director Todd Graff and actors Aly Michalka, Vanessa Hudgens and, showing up late (he was at the beach), Gaelan Connell; nine deleted scenes with optional director's intro (including Aly Michalka's brief acoustic version of "Amphetamine," the full rendition of Charlotte's ex-boyfriend serenading her with "Pretend," and the cute "Shredding" scene); Honor Society's music video "Where Are You Now"; and Vanessa Hudgens performing "Everything I Own" with the band.