Unlike the sweet confectionary pop of the High School Musical films (which I kinda like), Bandslam one-ups Disney by making a totally accessible teen film which still has some true darkness and sadness behind the typical, “Gosh, this geek just really wants to fit in.” When a parent is missing in Bandslam, it is not because they died in childbirth or a plane crash or some other noble off-camera death, it’s because they really effed up and are a bad absent parent or they are really sick with a horrible disease. Ouch. When these kids are alienated by their family traumas, they actually have a really good reason to be.
Gaelan Connell (with his white-boy fro) plays Will Burton, a high school misfit, whom his mom (Lisa Kudrow) knows is a cool kid, but his schoolmates don’t give him the time of day. That is unless they are beating him and taunting him cruelly. Will’s wish comes true when he is given a second chance when his mom says they are moving to New Jersey. This is the first time I’ve seen on film New Jersey portrayed as salvation, but hey, in this kid’s case, it is an escape from hell.
With a clean slate, Will makes friends with Sa5m (the “5” is silent! and dangit, the silent number is a joke I thought of years ago that I can now NEVER use again!), who is played by none other than HSM’s own Vanessa Hudgens doing her best sardonic, mumbly, vaguely gothy Janeane Garofalo impression. Will is also, to his great surprise, adopted as a new best buddy to hot chick senior Charlotte (Alyson Michalka) who has eschewed her former like of being a bitchy cheerleader to, you know, maybe being nice to geeks for a chance. You know she has to have motives, but you may be surprised by her reasons.
Swirling around this maybe kinda crush-triangle is Bandslam, the annual teen rock band competition that has the kids salivating with anticipation months in advance. Charlotte wants to compete against her old pals who think they have the record contract in their pocket, and she recruits Will to be her bands manager. Since Will is totally a music geek (much of the film is narrated in his personal journal, which starts, “Dear David Bowie…”), he actually has good ideas and gets Charlotte and her pals whipped into a decent pop-rock band. But will they be good enough to compete at Bandslam where kids from all over the Northeast are dying to be rock stars? Will they be? Will they, Will?
Now, this sounds formulaic, which it kind of is. But what charmed me about Bandslam is that it felt like a good teen novel… and if you’ve been paying any attention to teen novels beyond Twilight lately, there are a LOT of great teen books coming out these days. No one is drinking or slashing their wrists in this movie, luckily, so it is still pretty clean. But the kids here are more three-dimensional that most kid-flicks I’ve seen lately. The music references are hip, which initially annoyed me, until I conceded that they were getting the references right (dammit!). And lead Gaelan Connell has the kind of sheepish charm of a young John Cusack, making him refreshing in an era where only pretty boys seem to become stars.
So: Dear David Bowie, Bandslam is a surprisingly charming movie. It made me smile, laugh, and even get teary-eyed towards the end. And, in my opinion, if this film could get one kid… just ONE KID to put down their fake Rock Band guitar and pick up a real one, I’d call Bandslam more of a rousing success than it already is!