Our critic-at-large Jeff Koch finds the commonalities, and distinctions, between two musically-themed films. Who wins out?
Last summer, Summit Entertainment released the move Bandslam. Starring Alyson Michalka and Vanessa Hudgens of Disney fame, the movie was marketed as a sort of High School Musical companion.
It bombed, grossing just $2.3 million on its opening weekend. The movie quickly disappeared into the land of forgotten movies.
However, there was a small outcry from critics and movie insiders. According to those that had seen the movie and had worked on it, the movie was promoted incorrectly, failing to inspire its target audience. They argued that the movie was less High School Musical and more School of Rock, the Jack Black movie about a substitute grade school teacher who turns a class into his very own rock band.
They were right. The movie is anything but Disney; it’s smart, clever, funny, emotional, complex, and mature. The movie stars Gaelan Connell as Will (the original title of the movie was Will, but the studio thought that was too “indie”), a geeky teenager who escapes into music and music history as his shelter from the outside world. The writing here is spot on. All the musical details ring true, and the observations made in the movie could only come from a true musician or music lover. Will, though not a musician, has his rock history down (and the soundtrack deftly drives this point home), and he has the conviction and passion that can only be found in teenagers that know they are right. He also has the naivete that accompanies those teenage years, when the shades of gray have yet to be fully colored in. Connell plays Will perfectly, making him awkward and likeable, yet confident in his musical acumen, and always passionate about the power of music.
After transferring to a new high school, Will meets Charlotte (played by Michalka). They hit it off, and Will is quickly enlisted as her new band’s manager. Using his vast knowledge, Will’s job is to turn the band into a functioning unit to compete at Bandslam, an annual competition of high school bands.
He also meets Sa5m (Hudgens—the 5 is silent), his would be love interest. Their relationship is played outside of the musical world, and it’s very sweet and appropriately awkward (the scene in which Will attempts to kiss Sa5m is priceless). But since most people know Hudgens from High School Musical fame, you know eventually she’ll be singing.
There is the requisite rival band at their high school, and the necessary past connection between the two bands. Every major character seems to have something mysterious from their past that will come back to haunt them. And, of course, there is the big musical finale, in which the new band shows off their metamorphosis and hopefully wins the grand prize.
Much like School of Rock, the great strength of the movie is the protagonist. SoR is Jack Black at his best, his manic energy and over the top enthusiasm reined in just enough to make the character believable and even a little bit charming and likeable. His connection with the children in the movie and his conviction in the music are genuine and propel the movie. Similarly, in Bandslam, Will’s passion and intelligence are also authentic. The best scenes in the movie are when Will is critiquing and shaping the new band, making them listen to what they are doing and play as a band, not as a collection of variably talented musicians. When Will tells the drummer that the real art of drumming is knowing when to play less, that is spoken like a true musician and music lover. The transformation of the band is believable, because Will’s guidance is all (from a musician’s perspective) honest and correct.
The music created in each of the movies is also quite good. In SoR, the song that the kids (with Black) play in the big finale is great. It’s also, maybe ironically, believable that a 12 year old kid could have written it. In Bandslam, the song they settle on playing for the competition is very well-written and moving.
There are 2 places in which Bandslam deviates from SoR, and end up setting SoR above Bandslam. The first is the execution of the performances. In SoR, they are all real. In the rehearsal scenes in the classroom, all the music is recorded live, and it’s obvious that all of the kids are really playing their instruments, and the performances on the video are the same performances on the audio. In Bandslam, all the audio performances are professionally recorded and mixed, making them feel very inauthentic. When someone is sitting at a piano singing a song, it shouldn’t sound like a CD; it should sound like somebody sitting at a piano, singing a song. While it is obvious that most of the players in the movie know how to play their instruments, it is also obvious that most of the time they are lip-syncing and air-drumming and air-guitaring. This might not mean much to most people, but to musicians it’s a pet peeve, and something that makes SoR refreshing.
The major letdown of Bandslam, though, is the finale. It’s not fair to compare it to SoR, because SoR’s finale is mostly perfect. The emotional payoff, the performance, and the sheer joy all come together perfectly and realistically. But even judged on its own merits, Bandslam is found wanting. For reasons I won’t divulge here, the band is unable to perform their “perfect” song that they had rehearsed for countless hours prior to the competition. Instead, they work up a new song to play in the alley behind the venue minutes before they’re supposed to go onstage. Ugh. Completely implausible, especially with a 9-piece band! And the song they end up playing is not as good as the other song (not to mention that it’s a cover), minimizing any emotional payoff we’re supposed to feel, and also somewhat detaching the audience from the importance of the moment. We no longer feel as invested in the success of the group, because we’re no longer invested in this song that comes out of left field. Part of what makes the finale of SoR so special is that we see them perform a song that we’d seen them rehearsing and sculpting over time. To minimize that effort also minimizes our caring.
Despite the flaws, Bandslam is still quite good. It’s certainly not High School Musical; it’s just not quite School Of Rock, either. Do yourself a favor, and see both.
Bandslam: 8.0 / 10
School of Rock: 9.5 / 10.