To say that my anticipation for sitting down and watching Todd Graff’s Bandslam was wanting is an oversimplification. To say I was dreading the prospects of watching what appeared to be some ungodly concoction of Richard Linklater’s School of Rock (2003) and the whitewashed pap of High School Musical is an understatement. So imagine my slack-jawed amazement—and slight guilt—when partway into the film I discovered myself actually enjoying Bandslam.
Yes, the film is generic teenage-geek-empowerment junk, where the dorky social misfit makes good. In this case, the asocial nebbish is a music nerd—think the physical embodiment of Pitchfork Media—named Will (Gaelan Connell, A Dirty Shame). Will is an awkward, inept teen who writes unanswered e-mails to David Bowie. After moving from Cincinnati—where he is his school’s established social leper—to New Jersey for a new start, Will falls in with former-cheerleader-turned-aspiring-musician Charlotte (pop singer and TV actress Alyson Michalka). It seems Charlotte needs the help of Will and his vast stores of musical knowledge to help her form a band that will win some all-important battle of the bands called Bandslam.
In addition to Will taking a shoddy group of mishmashed musicians and making something special out of them, the movie also features some romantic entanglements between Will and the school’s other outcast, the combat-boot-wearing, Willa Cather-reading, Evil Dead 2-watching Sa5m (tween starlet Vanessa Hudgens, High School Musical 3: Senior Year)—the “5” in her name is silent. Plus, there’s the inevitable conflict between Will and the overaged big man on campus (in this case, 30-year-old Scott Porter, Speed Racer). It’s all as predictable as one might guess, meaning surprises are about as scant as the proverbial hen’s teeth.
But what makes the film almost work isn’t necessarily the plot, but rather what writer/director Graff (Camp) and co-writer Josh A. Cagan choose to festoon the proceedings with. Namely, I’m speaking about the music that the film revolves around. The mere idea of creating a lucrative tween movie sans a tie-in to a Nickelodeon show or wildly popular Disney Channel sitcom is already risky enough. But on top of that, to then make a movie which trades not in flavor-of-the-week pop acts, but instead in discussing things like pre- and post-John Cale Velvet Underground and putting stuff like Television or Nick Drake on your sound track—and trying to sell all this to preteen girls—is verging on insane. Graff and Cagan appear—much like Linklater’s School of Rock—to have a genuine love for the music in the film as opposed to shooting for some sort of phony name-dropped credibility (this means you, Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist). The pair even manage to nail—or at least closely approximate—the gauche gawkiness of teenage life, something more popular fare, like High School Musical, never bothers covering (Connell is likable and believable as the awkward teen, and at the age of 20, can thankfully pass for a teen).
It’s too bad, then, that the film starts to lose steam around the halfway mark, once everything that makes Bandslam interesting is instead exchanged for teenage melodrama and the uninteresting junk the bands in the film play. While the movie’s missteps don’t cripple it altogether, they do take what could’ve been a nice little teen comedy and instead turn it into what amounts to a deeply flawed curio. Rated PG for some thematic elements and mild language.