I said we were going to do Dark City next but I guess I didn’t deliver what I advertised. But that’s oddly related to the film I am delivering. Raise your hands if you’ve ever gone to see something based off the trailer. I’m guilty of it myself; often dismissing a film because its trailer didn’t look good. But really, time has proved that trailers are quite frankly bullshit. The trailer only contains clips of the film, edited in a way to make it appealing. But editing is a powerful thing. There’s a whole subculture of YouTubers who edit trailers to make the movie look like a completely different genre; take The Shining as a family dramedy, Mrs Doubtfire as a horror movie, and Harry Potter & the Half Blood Prince as a teen comedy. Real trailers pull this trick too. The most notorious examples:
*Bicentennial Man – a melancholy and sombre story about a robot questioning what it means to be human, marketed as another quirky Robin Williams comedy.
*Pan’s Labyrinth – a very dark and gothic fantasy film featuring lots of blood and scary imagery, marketed as a family-friendly fairy tale.
*Bridge To Terabithia – a preteen coming of age story where two children use their imaginations to create a fantasy world, marketed as a Narnia-type adventure where the fantasy stuff is real.
There’s a lot of reasons for this. The most glaring one is that the people who make the trailers are not the actual filmmakers – but rather the marketing department. Two films released last year – Trolls and the reboot of Ghostbusters – had the makers criticising the trailers for how badly they represented what they were supposed to be promoting. Essentially it comes from the marketing department trying to reach the widest demographic possible. As this film stars Vanessa Hudgens coming off the heels of her breakout role, they advertised it as this:
When it’s actually more like this:
The movie dates itself to the 2000s for the first of many times with its opening – where its teenage protagonist writes a letter to David Bowie. He’s not part of the Bowie Brigade, nor was he one of many children snatched by the Goblin King. He’s just a fan. And the fact that he’s typing out actual fanmail shows how hard the fans of the pre-Twitter generation had it. Our protagonist is called Will Burton, and he’s played by Gaelen Connell. This guy hasn’t really done much in the way of acting since the film, but appears to be trying directing instead. At nineteen years of age, he slots into the film and carries it in a very subtle but effective way. Will is an outsider in his “comfortably numb” hometown of Cincinnati, and is bullied by a lot of the locals. For some reason he gets nicknamed ‘Dewey’. Thankfully things are looking up for him when his mother announces that she’s quit her job and they’re moving to New Jersey! That’s a cool mom but that’s to be expected, since she’s played by…
While I’ve found that some actresses get forced into the mother roles when they get to a certain age, Lisa Kudrow seems tailor-made for such a character. She plays the mother role so unbelievably well that she comes close to just walking away with the film.
Will gets to New Jersey and discovers that there’s something big called Bandslam. It’s big enough that the entire school is screaming for an announcement for it – what Will describes as “A Nuremberg rally organised by MTV”. It’s apparently a battle of the bands where the winner gets a record deal. He’s relayed this information by a girl called Sa5m. The five is silent.
Sa5m is played by Vanessa Hudgens, who was kind of a big deal in the late 2000s. She got her start as a child actress, though the only notable project she had a role in was the much-derided Thunderbirds movie. Huge success came when she played Gabriella Montez in Disney Channel’s High School Musical franchise. The films turned her into a tween superstar – and had the side effect of netting her a massive hatedom from anyone outside that demographic. Vanessa would go on to earn her stripes in later roles, but the potential was already there in High School Musical – especially with her powerful singing voice. She would be written off by a lot of people as ‘just a voice’, and a lot of her post-Disney work heavily focused on promoting her as a singer. Indeed she doesn’t sing in this film until the last part – but the trailers spoiled and milked the hell out of it. But Vanessa is here as an actress and she more than starts to prove her talents as Sa5m. She’s got some tricky work to do; Sa5m is an emotionless girl but just like you wouldn’t play a boring person by simply being boring, Vanessa has to make this character engaging. And that she does. She also gets put into a buddy assignment with Will in a class that I can assure you we don’t have here in Ireland. Will also catches the attention of…
This is Charlotte Barnes, played by Aly Michalka. She like Vanessa came from Disney roots – in this case Phil of the Future. She’s currently a dual singer with her sister AJ. So in contrast to Vanessa, she’s featured more as a singer than an actress here. But her performance is perfectly fine. Her character is beautiful and blonde – and we’re set in a high school – so she must be a cheerleader. Well she used to be; she quit the squad for unknown reasons. By all accounts she used to be quite the bitch, before suddenly turning over a new leaf. She’s got some hidden depths as a passionate lover of classic rock. She and Will immediately bond over their love of Velvet Underground.
Director Todd Graff admitted while promoting the film that he was putting his own musical interests into the characters’ mouths – claiming that it was probably unrealistic that a millennial would even know of David Bowie or the Velvet Underground. At least judging from the reactions out of test audiences (though that might say more about what kind of audiences they were testing). Anyway Charlotte was previously in a band called the Glory Dogs – that contained all the high school’s elite figures. She quit and formed another band with some guys lower on the totem pole than her. After Will mentions that his dad – who has not been seen or mentioned before this – works as a side man playing instruments for bands like The Who, Charlotte invites Will to a practice. After hearing them play, Will shows that he knows plenty about music and gives them some pointers. You can probably guess where this is heading.
So yeah I’ll be the first to admit that this film does feel a little cliched in parts. It follows a very familiar formula that most stories about bands use. There are a lot of similarities between this and School of Rock, which I reviewed a few months ago. But the way I see it, you have two choices. You can embrace the cliches and know how to use them well – thereby creating a story that’s familiar but still fun. Or you can get lazy and just use them hoping no one will notice. A good example of a cliched band film is the debacle that was Jem & the Holograms. This is fully aware of the tropes used in band stories – but does some good things with them. And some things we haven’t honestly seen before.
While having lunch, the band are approached by Ben Wheatley. He’s the big man on campus, lead singer of Glory Dogs and Charlotte’s ex-boyfriend. She declares that Glory Dogs won’t be the only school band attending Bandslam, and that Will is the manager. Things start to pick up as Will continues to click with Sa5m and the band adds more members. They start with a drummer who is reluctant to join. But he catches sight of Will’s mother and falls in love. Resulting in…
During the practice, Charlotte references the story Will told her about his father. And since this then cuts to a concerned look from his mother, we’re led to believe that Will has been telling porkie pies as the cockneys say. Will also tells the band that they need a “fuller sound” and so it’s time to recruit…
Fun fact; Gaelen Connell is a cello player and he auditioned to play that role – which was down as male in the script. When Todd Graff saw the audition, he had Gaelen play Will instead. Elvy Yost then impressed in her audition, so the cellist became a girl.
Anyway the following scenes of Will getting the band to find their sound are very fun for music lovers. And possibly for everyone else too. It’s clear that Todd Graff loves his music, and this film is really a love letter to it. But they’re not quite ‘there’ yet. Will says they need a signature song that says who they are. Also they need a name; he suggests “I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On”.
One person who doesn’t seem happy lately is Karen – because she thinks Will is pulling away from her. But someone he’s getting closer to is Sa5m – and he goes into the city with her on a date. He takes her to his favourite place. CBGB – a former music club that opened in New York during the 1970s. It became famous for hardcore punk music, though bands of different genres played there in its heyday. It closed down in the 2000s, so all they have is the remains. The date goes pretty well however, and Sa5m looks like she’s sweetening up towards Will. However I can’t stop giggling at the sight of them bringing digital cameras everywhere to film things. Oh those late 2000s were quirky times.
Charlotte too has picked up that things are going well between the two budding lovers – so she gives Will a chance to kiss her just so he’ll know what to do with Sa5m. She unfortunately decides to do this while parked across the street from his house – meaning that Karen spies the whole thing through her window. I don’t know if y’all are like me – but I felt for sure this was going to be the start of a love triangle between Will, Charlotte and Sa5m. But nope, strictly a friend thing. I can’t commend the movie enough for featuring a prominent female character who does not end up as someone’s love interest – and it deserves props for the actual love interest being a developed character too. There seems to be a long standing stereotype – thanks in particular to 90s teen movies – that boys and girls can’t be just friends and one will inevitably end up falling for the other. Doesn’t happen at all here.
But what does happen is the most fantastic first kiss attempt you will ever see in existence. My writing cannot do it justice.
Charlotte gets the band tickets to see a performance of one of the other groups who will be competing at Bandslam. Will unfortunately forgets all about his date with Sa5m, meaning that Miss ‘The Five Is Silent’ is left waiting alone outside the movie theatre. Naturally she’s pissed the next time Will sees her. He goes over to her house and while he waits, her mother naturally has to bring out the home movies. Thankfully these aren’t of five-year-old Sa5m streaking in the backyard. They’re of her in a singing competition years ago that she didn’t win. When she comes home, she’s furious at her mother for showing him the video and furious at Will in general. I do have to laugh at the idea that Will would have to dig through mommy’s home movies just to find a video of Vanessa Hudgens singing.
We’ve got another ‘Late 2000s Alert’ as I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On publish a page on MySpace…
…before Charlotte’s ex Ben tries to win her back. Via song.
It doesn’t work, and Ben is not pleased to discover Will in the room listening. He orders his henchmen to dig up dirt on him. They refuse because they’re not henchmen and Ben isn’t a blonde cheerleader in a 90s teen movie. After a cute sequence where Will wins Sa5m over with a video project in class, Ben calls Will ‘Dewey’…
Will is understandably freaked out by this, even if we don’t know why. We do however learn a bit more about his father. He was a drummer, so Will wasn’t completely lying about him having musical ability. But from how he and Karen talk, we can gather that the marriage did not end happily. At least the scene ends with a lovely reassurance from her. If only we could all get regular pep talks from Lisa Kudrow.
On a brighter note, Charlotte has found the band’s signature song. It’s one she’s written inspired by her sick father and her two little brothers. Titled “Someone To Fall Back On”, it’s a great performance all around. I was not familiar with Aly & AJ before this movie, but Aly Michalka has got the pipes and this was a song I fell in love with instantly. Will falls in love too and declares that they will use it. Unfortunately, we’re heading into the third act.
So what is our third act conflict going be?
It’s option number three. Charlotte’s father dies of cancer. Will doesn’t hear about this from her. He hears it second hand from a teacher at school. And since this is before we broadcasted most of our lives on Facebook, Charlotte appears to be avoiding everyone. So when Will goes to visit her, he finds out the truth. When her father was diagnosed, she got a bit of a realisation as to what a bitch she was. She broke up with Ben, abandoned her popular friends, volunteered at daycare and associated with the social outcasts – all in the hopes of good karma making her father better again. She also reveals that she knows all about what ‘Dewey’ means. Before I get into that, let me show you this shot from after Charlotte angrily shouts “Dewey” at Will.
She’s out of focus in the background, but you can see her clapping her hand over her mouth. A brilliant bit of acting from Aly Michalka; showing Charlotte angrily trying to to call Will out and then immediately regretting what she’s said. Knowing she’s hit below the belt, possibly relapsing into the old bitchy persona her father hated so much. Massive praise to Todd Graff for this bit of subtlety.
Back to the subject of ‘Dewey’. The correct spelling is actually DWI. That stands for Driving While Intoxicated – which is what Will’s father was known for. Now back to the subject of the band. After a – thankfully brief – period of moping, Will rallies them and says they’ll compete at Bandslam. Without Charlotte. But with the song she wrote. As for who they’ll pick to replace her as a singer?
This moment probably would have felt more awesome had the trailers not shown plenty of clips of Vanessa Hudgens singing. Cut to Bandslam, where Todd Graff decided to let several local bands showcase their stuff as the competition. Karen is also manning the merchandise table for I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On. She’s none too pleased when Charlotte shows up. She also gives us the full details of Will’s father: the DWI came about when he killed a little boy in an accident. The town despised him, but when he went to prison, they had all this hate and no one to direct it on. So they let Will have it in his place. If you think that sounds awful, bear that in mind the next time you see an angry mob forming on an internet post. Anyway Charlotte is actually here to apologise – citing that Will has made her want to be a better person and she wants to continue their friendship.
She gives a pretty peppy apology to the band and it looks like everyone’s made up. Things aren’t completely solved however as Glory Dogs go onstage – and they sing the song Charlotte wrote!
In fairness, Scott Porter’s rendition is just as good as Aly Michalka’s. The band has to hurriedly come up with another song to play, which means Will has to go on stage to stall. This crowd is apparently full of sociopaths – because they start chanting “Dewey!” at him. Will turns it around to say “do we want to rock?” and the band finally comes on. They perform “Everything I Own”, which is the song Will caught Sa5m singing on the home video. The trailers thankfully couldn’t spoil this in its entirety, so it’s a real treat for anyone watching the film. The crowd goes mad with applause, friendships are affirmed backstage and this even happens.
The winner is announced and it isn’t Glory Dogs or I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On. But someone had a video of the performance and decides to post it to YouTube. Soon the band’s MySpace is flooded with hits and comments, with plenty of people imitating Sa5m’s naming theme – L2iz, Lor3nna, Se8th etc. But guess who else the video reaches?
In what would end up being his final movie appearance, David Bowie finally writes back to his fan and says he’s starting up an indie label…
So you can gather just how great this film turned out to be right? Glowing critical reception and a couple of nominations. But remember what it was marketed as and who towards. The tween fans of Aly Michalka and Vanessa Hudgens thought they were getting a fun teeny-bopper film. People who would be more inclined to watch something like this were turned off by what they thought it was. The studio’s marketing department apparently got a load of angry emails from other studios, attacking them for the terrible campaign. It only grossed around $12 million against a $20 million budget. But it is a relief that the people who contributed to that $12 million at least got to experience a truly great teen coming of age story. It’s a film that merges realistic hardships of the teenage years with sheer love of music – much like School of Rock except for drama rather than comedy. The influences are definitely felt in John Carney’s surprise hit last year Sing Street.
I can’t grade, I’ll grade.
Story? A movie that knows how to use its cliches well in some areas and subvert them in others. B+
Characters? Teens maybe aren’t as realistic as say The Spectacular Now but they’re sure a lot of fun. Charlotte, Will and Sa5m felt nice and original. Karen was different than the typical mother figure. And the band members were all fun and quirky. B+
Performances? I wish better things had happened for Gaelen Connell after this, because his performance is great. Aly Michalka is fine. Both Vanessa Hudgens and Lisa Kudrow end up commanding the film. A
Visuals? Nice and understated, with some good wardrobe choices for the characters. Special attention seemed to be given to making each character have their own distinctive look. And they clearly had fun with the stage work at the end. B
Anything Else? A film that really loves its music and makes you love it too. A
Up next is an underrated gem from the 90s called Cats Don’t Dance.