I confess that I am not a huge fan of musical theater, despite the fact that the musical film done right is probably my favorite genre.
I own very few Broadway shows on CD (or LP, for that matter), though I admit to having the “original Broadway cast” 78s for both Oklahoma! and Kiss Me Kate, and as a small child, I could recite the entire double-talk opening of The Music Man from the original cast album (this feat may have had as much to do with the fact that it annoyed my parents). My actual familiarity with Stephen Sondheim is pretty much limited to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and that mostly comes from the Richard Lester film that jettisons a number of the songs.
I cite all this only to prove that I am perhaps not the target audience for a musical film that stops every so often to allow its fresh-faced, first-timer stars to belt out tunes from Follies, Dream Girls and Promises, Promises. (That last rates special mention as I had happily gone my entire life without hearing “Turkey Lurkey Time,” and would give much to return to that state of blissful ignorance; the very existence of a song called “Turkey Lurkey Time” makes me uneasy.) Nor am I likely to fall into a faint over seeing the great Sondheim himself put in a cameo appearance in Todd Graff’s Camp, the writer/actor’s directorial debut.
That said, I never disliked Graff’s film, and found a lot of it entertaining — and a few things about it just a little baffling. (Point to ponder: Just what is Alice Cooper’s “Generation Landslide” doing on this movie’s soundtrack? I’m not complaining, mind you, since it was a helpful antidote to “Turkey Lurkey Time.”) As a movie, Camp is some weird hybrid of Alan Parker’s Fame and Dirty Dancing, the only movie not made by Ken Russell to make any money for Vestron Pictures. If you took the former and actually placed it in the Catskills (they were played in Dirty Dancing by Lake Lure), you’d get something like Camp — except that the Catskills would be real and the token gay boy in Fame would be replaced by a token straight boy. Oh, yes, you’d also have to shoot the film in 23 days on next to no money.
Camp‘s results are uneven, but the film tries to make up for that in enthusiasm — and sometimes succeeds. As a filmmaker, Graff has a lot to learn. From the onset, where he tries to establish his main characters by intercutting them with a musical number, it’s obvious that his ideas are grander than his ability to carry them off. Cutting away, for example, from the number to the character Michael (Robin de Jesus), the movie’s Hispanic transvestite (paging John Leguizamo in To Wong Foo and Miriam Shore in Hedwig and the Angry Inch) getting the crap kicked out of him for trying to attend his junior prom in drag ought to have been a truly visceral experience. But it isn’t. Graff handles the material in such a flat-footed manner that all you get is a kind of rough sketch of the idea.
Too, a lot of the jokes don’t quite work; they’re too obvious. There’s a certain satisfaction in seeing the tables turned and the token straight boy, Vlad (Daniel Letterle), presented with the heterosexual equivalent of the cliches usually used to establish gay characters, but this only takes you so far — and the point is pretty well lost since all the usual gay cliches are also on display (which may be inevitable in any movie centering on show tunes.) On the other hand, a great many of the jokes do work well — the explanation of why Michael’s school rightly refused his admittance to the prom is priceless.
There’s only a smattering of a story here, and even that can only be called serviceable. Most of the drama (such as it is) revolves around alcoholic, one-show wonder Bert Hanley (former R.E.M. producer Don Dixon) and his quasi-regeneration by this assortment of talented — but very strange — kids. That part of the film is fairly trite, but it’s a surprising endorsement of the power of cliches, since the moment they break through to him is so genuinely felt that it’s moving. (You may resent the manipulation, but I think you’ll be hard-pressed to say it doesn’t work.) Dixon gets the movie’s funniest and most trenchant moment when he forthrightly spells out the gap between the kids’ idea of the world and reality itself, painting their gloomy futures with a deft precision that culminates in his assertion that they’re headed for “a life of bitterness and the obsessive, pointless collecting of out-of-print, original cast albums.”
It’s an interesting moment for Graff, too, since it gives some weight to the generally gee-whiz Mickey and Judy-ishness of so much of the material. There’s no denying that both Graff and the kids are talented — Anna Kendrick (after doing an extreme Eve Harrington on her heroine) indeed belts out a startlingly fine rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Plus, the musical needed something right now to wash away the specter of From Justin to Kelly.
It’s just unfortunate that Camp‘s situational story line is such a rag-bag of cliches (most of which do not work on the level of Hanley’s coming around) — so much so that, in the end, the film is dramatically neutered. I found myself almost wishing that Jason Voorhees would come break this thing up during the film’s treacly ending.
Yet at bottom, Camp is a dear little movie that will likely please you on its own modest terms. And it may well grow on you. Myself, I haven’t ruled out purchasing the DVD when it comes out — though I don’t anticipate cruising eBay any time soon to start searching for out-of-print, original cast albums.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke