Bandslam looks just like any other teen musical of the High School Musical era – but here’s what sets it apart.
This article contains spoilers for Bandslam.
There was a time, in the mid–2000s, when the High School Musical franchise was as inescapable as Frozen is to modern ears, and in the wake of its success a plethora of pre-teen pop based musicals were released into the market. While many lazily used the same formula in the hopes of lucrative returns, others were willing to take a few more risks.
One that stands out is 2009’s Bandslam. With posters prominently displaying former High School Musical actor Vanessa Hudgens and fellow ex–Disney star Aly Michalka, the trailer posits the film as almost a carbon copy, the story of an underdog overcoming adversity to perform at the titular competition. In actual fact, the film that audiences got when they went to see it was a little more mature. That isn’t to say that it doesn’t sometimes veer into similarly saccharine territory, but the actual Bandslam of the title really isn’t that central to the story.
Gaelan Connell, in his first starring role, is Will, a painfully shy teenager who moves to a new school and struggles to make friends. So far, so Disney. But director Todd Graff sets his stall out early as he shows Will’s relationship with his mother, played by Lisa Kudrow. Their dialogue is spiked with wit and sarcasm, it’s a relationship that feels real.
The script is credited to Graff, whose directorial debut, 2003’s Camp, covered similar ground, and Josh A. Cagan, who would go on to write teen comedy The Duff. Although it takes the bare bones of what might otherwise have been a Disney Channel Original Movie, its characters set it apart. References to Thin Lizzy, the Velvet Underground, Peter Tosh and Keith Richards are perhaps the first indication that this is a film that doesn’t talk down to its audience. One thread that runs through the film sees Will write letters about his life to David Bowie, which is a neat device that both introduces Will’s character whilst allowing for exposition.
The characters also go against the teen movies stereotypes. Take Charlotte, played by Aly Michalka. In any other film she would likely have been set up as a ‘mean girl’ who causes trouble for the protagonist. Here, she is the one who pushes Will out of his comfort zone, taking what initially seems to be a genuine interest in him, which is the catalyst that sets off the remainder of the plot. Charlotte, it transpires, is the lead singer of a struggling rock band, who can’t even agree on a name. Will, with his near encyclopaedic musical knowledge, begins to bring the disparate pieces together, from the abrasive drummer to an entire brass section. They begin to mesh musically, and Will begins to come out of his shell.
Running parallel to this is the burgeoning friendship between Will and Hudgens’ Sa5m (the 5 is silent). Though this does perhaps conform to the stereotype of a guy being caught between two girls with diametrically opposing personalities, what differentiates this story is that none of the characters are outright antagonists. Each of the women are both flawed in their own ways – Sa5m is deeply mistrustful while Charlotte’s kind nature is too good to be true – but ultimately, they are both kind people, which is a nice change from the cookie cutter ‘good’ and ‘evil’ stereotypes normally associated with films like this.
One of the other running gags of the film is Will constantly being referred to as ‘Dewey’, which isn’t explained until two thirds of the way through the story. Throughout the film, Will quickly dismisses talk of his father, explaining him away as a touring session musician. It transpires that Will’s father was actually imprisoned after drink driving and killing a child, hence Will’s nickname (DWI, Driving While Intoxicated). All of this is revealed in a beautifully written monologue near the end of the film by Lisa Kudrow.
This is a plot point that would never get anywhere near a Disney movie, and it proves that filling a screenplay with more mature themes whilst still delivering the sugary musical the trailer suggests is possible.
The music featured in the film is another aspect that differentiates it from similar films of the era, with an eclectic range of rock, ska and reggae both featured and mentioned – what other modern teen film would have its central characters make a pilgrimage to visit legendary New York club CBGB?
The crowning glory comes at the titular Bandslam as the band – now called Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On – are forced at the last minute to change their song choice to the only one that Sa5m knows – Everything I Own. What follows is a barnstorming performance in which every band member gets their chance to shine in the spotlight. This ending does mirror a plethora of similar films, it has to be said, perhaps most notably School Of Rock, but I would argue that by this point, the film has earned it.
Bandslam is also notable because, in its final moments, David Bowie appears as himself. A video of the band goes viral and Bowie, liking their sound, finally replies to Will’s email with the promise of signing them to his label. It’s a bittersweet moment, because as lovely as it is to see him, it would turn out to be Bowie’s final performance on film.
Hudgens would go on to fully embrace her adult side only a few years later, when director Harmony Korine cast her in 2013’s Spring Breakers. To date, Connell has starred in just one other feature film, 2013’s The Secret Lives Of Dorks, whilst Michalka continues to act and write music. To date, Graff’s last film was the gospel inspired musical, 2012’s Joyful Noise starring Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah.
Vanessa Hudgens may be the connective tissue between High School Musical and Bandslam, but the latter was the first film to really show her range, both as an actress and a singer – Philip French of The Guardian compared her performance favorably to the likes of Thandiwe Newton and Dorothy Parker.
In its willingness to embrace more mature themes and take risks with its characters, Bandslam is a film that stands up remarkably well to repeat viewings.
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