It’s a bit of a shame that Bandslam is being marketed to the same people that liked High School Musical, as despite featuring a few songs and having Vanessa Hudgens in it, this is a movie that’s more likely to be truly appreciated by people who are a few years older than the HSM crowd.
Will (Gaelan Connell) is a misfit, music loving teenager who’s having problems at school. When his mother (Lisa Kudrow) gets a new job they move to a different city (in what is probably the first time in movie history that someone has been excited to go to New Jersey, rather than leave it), which gives Will a chance to start over. For reasons he finds impossible to fathom, Charlotte (Alyson Michalka), a hot ex-cheerleader and junior prom queen, latches on to him, despite the fact they’re at polar ends of the social spectrum. After discovering that Will has an encyclopaedic knowledge of music, Charlotte installs him as the manager of her band and sets him the task of shaping them into something that can win the talent contest, Bandslam. Also part of Will’s odyssey into the world of attractive women is the slightly gloomy, friendless Sa5m (Vanessa Hudgens) – the ‘5’ is silent – who’s teamed with Will on a school project. However they soon discover they share a kindred spirit.
There are a lot of standard teen flick elements to Bandslam and it’s set in one of those schools that only exist in films, where they have rock concerts during lunch and everyone’s life revolves around a talent show. But despite this it’s actually a surprisingly interesting and funny film, and explores ideas of teen social position, alienation and relationships in a more honest way than many similar movies. It’s also quite nice that it makes a hero out of someone who doesn’t have some sort of amazing, God given talent. Normally these films centre on somebody who already has something remarkable about them but they just need the opportunity to show how great they are, whether it’s an amazing singing voice, untapped dancing brilliance, athletic prowess or something else.
It’s a fantasy that would be nice to believe in, but most people watching these films don’t have any such talents. It’s nice then to give this majority of gawky teens their own hero in Will.
Bandslam is still a fantasy of performance leading to self discovery, but it’s nice that the movie revolves around the band’s manager rather than the lead singer. There’s nothing really remarkable about Will. He’s just a good kid with an intense passion for music, who’s trying to do the best he can. In real life it’d be much harder for him to turn the band’s fortunes around than it seems here, but the film presents it all as a bunch of people doing something they love and trying to be the best they can – in both life and music – rather than to get fame or money. It’s also nice that they didn’t feel the need to cast Will using an incredibly buff, attractive actor and then put some glasses on him to pretend he’s nerdy. Admittedly though that’s exactly what they do with Hudgens, whose outsider status is signified by a woollen hat and monotone speaking voice.
It’s a very uplifting film, and I have to say I enjoyed it immensely. There are a few words of warning though, particularly for those expecting High School Musical 4. As mentioned, this is more teen than tween (the movie was originally called Will, but got a more HSM-ish title after Hudgens signed on). It’s also not the full on musical you might expect from the TV adverts. There are songs, but they’re comparatively few and far between and the ones that do appear are more rock than pop (it does have a great soundtrack though, comprising everything from Bowie to Velvet Underground).
It’s also true that Vanessa Hudgens only gets one full song and that’s right near the end. Most of the singing is done by Hudgens’ fellow Disney Channel alum, Alyson Michalka, who it has to be admitted is pretty good. The film also has a few problems at the end when it gets a bit thematically confused and some of the characters get treated rather unfairly, but that’s a minor niggle.
I have to say I take my hat off to director Todd Graff. He’s one of the few filmmakers around who seems interested in making commercial films designed to speak to the sort of young people who genuinely feel they don’t fit in. It’s an issue that’s touched upon in many teen flicks, but normally feels tacked on, completely unrealistic or is presented as something to laugh at.
Before Bandslam Graff made Camp, about a bunch of misfit teens who find solace and friendship at a musical theatre retreat. In some respects it almost feels like that film was a rehearsal for this one, as they touch on quite similar themes. While Bandslam is slicker, simpler and slightly more generic than Camp, it’s still very enjoyable, uplifting and offers far more to savour than many comparable movies. It does present a teen fantasy, but it’s one that's nice to buy into for a couple of hours.
Overall Verdict: A sweet, uplifting, funny film that successfully makes a hero out of its misfit lead.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac