*1/2 (out of 5)
August 14, 2009
Aly Michalka as CHARLOTTE BANKS
Vanessa Hudgens as SA5M
Saelan Connell as WILL BURTON
Scott Porter as BEN WHEATLY
Studio: Summit Entertainment
Directed by: Todd Graff
BY KEVIN CARR
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In many discussions I’ve had with fellow critic friends, I have had to endure the vast maligning of the Disney Channel formula. It’s been called too simple, stupid, shallow and a dozen other insults. However, watching a film like “Bandslam” shows that while this tween formula might be overdone at times, there is a certain art to it.
This becomes apparent because “Bandslam” tries oh-so-hard to make this formula work but fails miserably at it. Like many other films trying to rip off what the Disney Channel does with such little apparent effort, “Bandslam” tries to make the story more edgy and cobbles itself in the process.
The story seems to be cut from the Disney Channel cloth. A high school kid named Will (Saelan Connell) moves to a new town and finds himself in the same valley of unpopularity as he was before. As an avid music fan, he soon meets up with a girl named Charlotte (Aly Michalka), who has a garage band that needs his help. So, Will starts to manage the band and prepare them for Bandslam, a massive battle of the bands in which the winner gets a recording contract. Oh, and in the mix is Sa5m (Vanessa Hudgens), a ridiculously gorgeous recluse who befriends Will and might even become his girlfriend.
It seems that the producers took one look at the story, mined a couple Disney Channel stars, threw in some deviously-written would-be pop songs and figured that’s all they needed to do. But they got the formula wrong.
First, Will is the main character, which is a no-no for the formula. (Most Disney Channel movies have a girl in the lead role.) This wouldn’t be a problem if it were Zac Efron in the lead role. Instead, it’s a whiney, mopey, depressing loser who immerses himself in music that is decades before his time. This is the kid that gets beat up in real life, not the hero of the movie.
The character of Will is perpetually annoying, narrating the film in these unending open letters to David Bowie, who has the most ridiculous cameo in the final act of the film. The kid embodies what I call the “Ross Factor,” based on the show “Friends.” Just as you start to feel sympathy for him, he ends up with two of the most gorgeous girls in school in his inner circle… and he manages to screw everything up.
The other big violation of the tried-and-true formula this film does is that it takes a decidedly dark turn near the end. These movies often try to go darker or grungier, presumably to differentiate themselves from the Disney Channel fodder. However, in “Bandslam,” things get really heavy in dealing with the skeletons in Will’s family’s closet. Add Lisa Kudrow as the protective but dimwitted mother, and you’ve got a sour note in the film.
Don’t misjudge my reliance on the Disney Channel formula to mean that I disliked “Bandslam” because it didn’t follow said formula. I am all for shaking things up. However, the way this film shook things up was as formulaic as ever, just drawing from a different well.
The acting doesn’t save the film, and the characters are almost all shallow or needlessly troubled. Add this to the brutal near-two-hour running time, and you have a film that tweens and teens might enjoy like a bad episode of “Degrassi,” but the parents will want to take a nap during.
To be honest, I would have had much more interest in this film if the cinematographer would have just handed the camera over to Vanessa Hudgens and turn her loose alone in her hotel room. Her role in “Bandslam” may have bored me, but I like her earlier (and apparent recent) work in pictures, to be sure.