“School today was like Guantanamo with a lunch period.”
Kyle’s rating: Nowhere near perfect, but a surprisingly impressive & enjoyable fusion of legit fun & dumb tween stuff
Kyle’s review: My review must begin with the fully Ebert-esque confession that I skimmed through several parts of Bandslam. I was up against the deadline for returning my rental copy (that $1 late fee looms ever so large!) and there were some things I had to do, so having chosen some hard partying the night before, I had a short morning to watch the film. It wasn’t a hard thing to do to work that fast forward button; there are a few straight music scenes that I felt I could live without, and there are a couple scenes of the main characters triumphing drawn-out & set to music where you can get the gist even viewing at accelerated speed. It would be insincere to say that this is any kind of great film, therefore; how could skimming feel permissible unless you know you aren’t missing much?
That said, Bandslam is ultimately a good film. Teetering on being a very good film, in fact. Far from being the sort of processed tripe that the High School Musical films and their ilk seem to be, Bandslam hews closer to the cherished pantheon of high school films composed by John Hughes, Cameron Crowe, and Tina Fey. The main reason that I felt okay hitting the fast forward button on the rental DVD was that I knew sooner or later I would be watching my own personal copy (once it’s on super-sale or used somewhere). But even as I was speeding through some extraneous/obvious bits, my overall feeling was one of surprise: who could have known Bandslam would be so worthwhile? I guess I should have believed in the mighty Roger Ebert when he told us all so way back in August. Why do I ever doubt you, Mighty Ebert?
If you’re well-versed in the work of Hughes and Crowe, you’ll be fairly familiar with the basics of Bandslam. High school loser who is actually one of the nicest dudes around, and possessed of the kind of knowledge of music that rivals that of any legendary music producer, is befriended by a hot girl at his school who used to be a true mean girl but for mysterious reasons now avoids all vestiges of her old life. She recognizes our hero for the kind and knowledgeable guy he is, and asks him to help whip her new band into shape so that they can attempt the unthinkable: challenge their school reigning ‘top’ band at the local Bandslam competition which is such a big deal because the winner gets an actual recording contract. Our hero agrees because he thinks he might improbably have a shot with this mysterious and complex hot girl, even as the similarly-outcast girl he’s partnered up with on a semester-long project seems more and more like the right girl for him. All story points converge at the Bandslam competition: what do YOU think happens next?
There are a few more subplots I didn’t mention, which add some tension and fun to the proceedings but also push Bandslam to a rather weighty 111 minutes: I realize they wanted some genuine drama going on but a little tightening would have Bandslam a contender for loftier status. As it is, the somewhat standard story is utterly redeemed by the cast and a screenplay clearly scripted by some people who are either actually cool themselves or chill enough to rely on some outside sources to determine what’s cool and what’s not. I mean, yes, having the hero have a grand respect/crush for David Bowie is a little easy (taking a bit of wind out of Bowie’s last-reel cameo), but I will always give legit props to a film with believable characters sharing their influences and having them be 1. cool influential things; and 2. things that such a character might actually indulge in. And really, any film that brings in even a minor Clap Your Hands Say Yeah reference and makes it function believably in the dialogue/story is going to get at least some love from me. Whip It just used one of their songs on the soundtrack and I was won over. Perhaps I’m just easy in the aural sense.
I’m also easily won over by a strong cast, and for a bunch of kids assembled seemingly mostly from Disney-centric sources I was impressed by how properly indie-leaning they all came across. Vanessa Hudgens and Alyson Michalka will never win any acting awards anytime soon, but as Sa5m the outcast girl Will should be with and Charlotte the formerly popular girl Will should probably just be friends with, both acquit themselves rather nicely. Hudgens benefits from starting out cold and warming up to lead vocalist superstar throughout the film, while Michalka has the more actor-ly task of being rather complex but proves to be up to the challenge.
Michalka has an obvious oh-well-this-dramatic-scene-helped-me-decide-upon-this-script emotional exchange with pleasantly quirky mother-of-Will Lisa Kudrow late in the proceedings that is a rather blatant push to show off Michalka’s range of acting, yet it’s to her credit (and Kudrow’s experienced support) that she is closer to nailing the scene than wasting your time. All the kids, in fact, are personable and fun, from the misfit drummer to the varying-degrees-of-social-acceptance musically-inclined kids who cross clique-lines to form one kickass band. But ultimately, Bandslam rests upon the bent back of Gaelan Connell as burgeoning music genius Will Burton, and thankfully Connell is exceptional. Easily one of the most conventionally unattractive leads since Gabriel Jarret in Real Genius, Connell could easily hold his own with any of the best of those Crowe and Hughes lead characters. Will, what with his slowly-revealed tragic past, well-worn status as put-upon outsider, and self-sustaining unabashed love for music, is such an impressively-textured character that even a daytrip by Connell and Hudgens to the tragically-closed CBGB music club seems more authentic than pandering.
By the time the film sends Will and Sa5M (the ‘5’ is silent) to CBGB’s, it was clear that Bandslam is not at all the HSM clone tailor-made for tween consumption that the advertisements made it out to be. The albatross that Will carries with him from his old school and the reasons for Charlotte’s abandonment of the popular crowd are nothing too surprising, and threaten to veer a little too heavily into overwrought pathos, considering the playfulness of the rest of the movie. But Connell and Michalka sell their dramatic lives well enough that they simply add character to Will and Charlotte, and the enthusiasm and fun clearly on display from all the cast is infectious enough that Bandslam overcomes its tween stigma to become surprisingly meaningful. It’s not going to replace The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the consciousness of any age group, I should think, but it’s more worthwhile than you would have guessed before you read this review. By the time the happy ending (er, spoiler) rolls around and two character’s happiness causes a flicker of regret to cross another character’s face, like me you just might find yourself unexpectedly caring a little more about the moment than you would’ve thought. If you’re a music elitist or you’ve taken a strict vow to avoid any film with teenagers that doesn’t follow the paths of either Friday the 13th or Heathers, I understand your reticence in seeing this and that’s probably for the best. But if you can dig a high school movie without feeling overcome by nostalgia or feelings the urge to critique the film for unreal depictions of modern teenagers, then let me suggest Bandslam as a dark horse candidate for your next movie rental. If for no other reason than it’s always a pleasure to see David Bowie in a movie!
- The film was initially called Will, then changed to Rock On, and finally became Bandslam.
- In the original script, the band Glory Dogs was written as River Dogs, but it was changed due to being an actual band named River Dogs
- Charlie Saxton filmed a high school graduation scene for this movie before he himself actually graduated from his high school
- All of the instruments and singing in the film were recorded by the actors, excepting only the guitars of Vanessa Hudgens and Scott Porter, and the piano parts of Lisa Chung. Hudgens and Porter actually learned how to play their songs, but were dubbed by guitarist Jason Mozersky.
- Vanessa Hudgens originally wanted the part of Charlotte, and planned to turn down the role of Sa5m if it was offered to her
- David Bowie agreed to participate in Bandslam due to being a fan of director Todd Graff’s prior film Camp
- Charlotte: Hi, I’m Charlotte. Nice to meet you.
- Sa5m: I’ve known you since fifth grade.
- Charlotte: . . . hmm.
- Will: So, how big is this whole bandslam thing around here?
- Sa5m: Texas high school football big
- Will: I think you’re trying too hard to be like Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
- Bug: That’s crazy. I don’t even like Flea.
- Will: Yeah? What’s your name?
- Bug: . . . Bug.
If You Liked This Movie, Try These:
- School of Rock
- This is Spinal Tap
- High School Musical