Review: ‘Bandslam’ rocks – almost
August 13, 2009
Nobody swears in “Bandslam.” Can you believe it? Here it is, a movie about teenagers gearing up for a high school battle of the bands, with a cast of characters that runs the usual gamut from nerd to goth to jock. But the vibe is mellow. The humor has a nice, cockeyed bent to it. And no one says anything worse than “butt.”
Even cooler, the band in question has serious indie chops. At the start they’re just a guitarist, a bassist, a singer and a drum machine, the four of them cranking through a half-baked version of “I Want You to Want Me” (also butchered in “Rudo y Cursi). But after adding a cellist, a wind section and a wild-man delinquent on drums, they quickly graduate to an awesome Steve Wynn cover and chillin’ reggae grooves. All they need to win Bandslam, declares their proud, dweeby manager (Gaelan Connell), is “that one great song that says who we really are.”
Great idea. Unfortunately, when they find it, it turns out to be a drippy midtempo ballad with insipid lyrics. In other words, “who they really are” is … Celine Dion? Such is the mild disappointment of “Bandslam,” a mostly offbeat family movie with a mostly solid backbeat that isn’t as hip as it wants to be. It’s not quite “School of Rock.” Despite some promising kookiness at the outset, convention creeps into the movie’s latter half with a dreary betrayal (you know it’s coming) and a bit of timely moralizing (you know that’s coming, too), followed by a climax that makes absolutely no freaking sense from a musical standpoint.
But the movie has a few good tunes and some charming comic dash, at least at first. Its premise is familiar enough, introducing a dorky outcast named Will (Connell) who arrives at a new school in the Jersey ‘burbs. Will is one of those pasty-faced, sponge-haired eccentrics so popular in movies these days; imagine Jonah Hill’s hair on Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s body, mouth agape with hormonal turmoil.
But Will has a secret weapon: music. He knows it front and back. (He also writes letters to David Bowie, adding a glam epistolary touch to the narration.) The contents of his iPod are an instant bonding mechanism with two attractive females: Sa5m (Vanessa Hudgens), an emo moper with “a silent 5,” and Charlotte (Aly Michalka), the popular blond bombshell who mysteriously dumped her ex-beau (Scott Porter) and his bland rock group for those dorks playing Cheap Trick without a drummer. It’s odd to find Hudgens, the sunny Gabriella from all those “High School Musicals,” in a role that demands more or less constant scowling, but she’s not half bad at it. And her scenes with Connell are delightfully clumsy.
Directed and co-written by Todd Graff, who took an earlier look at the pubescent performing arts in 2003’s “Camp,” “Bandslam” is the least offensive teen movie in ages. The only truly icky bits are a few ill-advised “thematic elements” (to quote the MPAA) involving that wildman percussionist (Ryan Donowho) and Will’s mom, played by an unusually frazzled Lisa Kudrow. It’s the closest anyone gets to the seven dirty words.