Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Movie Review: BANDSLAM


It’s a movie.

But you probably haven’t heard of it.

As of this writing, BandSlam has the dubious distinction of owning the 8th worst opening weekend for a movie on more than 2000 screens since these sorts of records started being kept back in 1982, where it slots neatly between All Dogs Go to Heaven 2 and The Adventures of Pluto Nash. It is currently ranked way back at 4,351st in all-time domestic box office.

And according to, it was pulling in a miserable $47 per screening on Monday night.

Why do I bring this up? To rub it in? To kick some unlucky filmmakers while they’re down?


I mention all of this to draw a big, bright, neon circle around the true culprits behind these wretched statistics. Summit Entertainment and Walden Media’s “handling” of the marketing for this movie has been one of the single most incompetent and wrong-headed debacles I've ever seen in the world of movie making.

Now bear in mind, I've personally worked on movies that have NEVER been released. But, if you can believe it, THIS has been handled worse.

So let’s start again ...


It’s a movie.

But you probably haven’t heard of it.

And that is a goddamn shame, because it’s actually pretty good.

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that I’m an old school chum of Mr. Josh A. Cagan, who gets “story by” and “co-screenplay” credit on the film.

But this fact is only responsible for my seeing the film ... not for how I reacted to it. As anyone who knows me can tell you, I live by the credo: “Don’t ask my opinion if you’re not prepared to hear it.”

Because I don’t sugarcoat. I don’t blow smoke. And I don’t pass out empty praise. I'm just not wired for hollow compliments.

In short, if you’re looking for an ego fluffer, I’m not your guy.

So I'm being totally straight with you (and with Josh) when I say I really dug the movie.

It's sweet, endearing, and at points, surprisingly touching.

Performances are solid across the board, starting with Gaelan Connell’s Will. Connell very capably grounds the proceedings while simultaneously carrying the entire movie on his perpetually slumped little shoulders. There's an unpolished genuineness about him that really shines through. He's Shia LeBeouf without the ego and all the irritating affectations. He feels like a real kid. Yes, he’s nerdy, but he’s real-life nerdy, not Hollywood caricature nerdy. You believe Connell's Will. This, despite the fact that his character possess a musical knowledge base that, given his tender age, might just be supernatural. It’s a tricky thing to balance, but he pulls it off nicely.

As for the co-leading ladies, the biggest surprise for me was that Aly Michalka (Charlotte) so nimbly tap dances through some of the movie’s most delightfully quirky stretches of comic dialogue with an effortless sense of innate timing that often eludes actors with twice her experience. This girl has some legit comic chops and Connell and Michalka really pop during their verbal sparring matches.

Vanessa Hudgens -- the film's putative "movie star" -- is fairly capable in her turn as Sa5m, but isn’t given a great deal of heavy lifting to do story-wise. Well, that's not entirely true. Hudgens is tasked with offering her trademarked supernaturally adorable smile at regular ten minute intervals. (Presumably director Todd Graff gave her the direction “twinkle” during the filming of every single one of her scenes.)

Now it should be pointed out that being smiley and adorable is ... well, let's be honest ... it's kind of completely at odds with the moody goth girl she's supposed to be playing. But somehow this fact is not distracting here. Perhaps all the twinkling has a hypnotizing effect on the audience.

But the best performance in the film comes from the only adult in the room. You have to understand that it’s quite remarkable that I left the theater loving Lisa Kudrow's performance as Will's mom, Karen. This is notable because I have never liked Lisa Kudrow in anything before. In fact, I have actively disliked her in most everything I've ever seen her in. And yes, that includes Friends.

But here, she gives a surprisingly warm, layered, vulnerable and nicely nuanced performance in a movie where you probably wouldn't expect such a thing to exist.

This is a role that, if handled badly, could easily have been played for formulaic, canned sit-com laughs. But luckily Kudrow is not just collecting a check here. As Will's conflicted mom - caught between giving her teenage son space to grow up and hanging on to her little boy - she gets some genuine laughs. Her comic scenes with Connell are some of the best in the movie. But Kudrow also gets to flex her dramatic muscles as well, most notably in a heartfelt backstage monologue where she explains to Charlotte the cruel origin of Will's unwanted nickname. Kudrow is simultaneously tender and fierce -- baring her maternal claws like a momma bear protecting her cub.

Easily that scene was one of the movie's highlights. In part because of the performance, but also because it was one of a handful of moments where the script really takes center stage. And it shines.

Even the villain -- if there is such a thing in this movie -- competing band leader Ben Wheatley (Scott Porter) is given some nice comic moments. (Though, a picky point, Porter does appear to be a touch old for high school. A quick trip to IMDb confirms that Mr. Porter blew out 30 candles on his last birthday cake. Perhaps he’s one of those 13 year seniors.)

But the script, when it gets the occasional chance to surface between the many, many musical numbers, is clever, quick, tender and funny. Which is always welcome. Particularly since the musical numbers here are bland and forgettable.

Many reviews have compared this movie to School of Rock. But I happen to think it’s better than School of Rock. This movie has more natural charm, tons more honest sincerity (due in large part to Connell and Kudrow's chemistry) and none of Jack Black’s tiresome flailing, squealing or “eyebrow acting.” In my book, that's called a win/win.

Is the film faultless? Of course not. But for me its charms outweighed the pitfalls.

It felt about ten or fifteen minutes too long. They probably could have lopped off one or more of the musical numbers and come out better for it. In fact, all of the movie’s very best moments come during its flourishes of clever, rapid-fire dialogue. Dialogue that thankfully never approaches the irritating, self-congratulatory smarm of Juno. Unlike Juno, I could listen to these kids talk all day.

Cutting some musical numbers would also help because the musical numbers, without exception, are bland and forgettable. The movie sparks to life when the characters are lobbing dialogue back and forth. But once the perfectly mixed and Auto-Tuned soundtrack kicks in ... all the reality and charm drain away. The singing voices are thin, passionless and over engineered, and the band's sound is featureless and generic. (Which ironically is exactly the kind of thing Will's character rails against.)

But my biggest problem with the film is really one that's a fundamental problem with the industry itself.

The two lead actresses are woefully miscast.

While Michalka handles her duties capably and Hudgens doesn't knock anything over ... the simple presence of a pair of impossibly beautiful Disney-bred wannabe "pop" starlets really flies in the face of the quirky, realistic story that's on the page.

Both girls must have been surrounded at all times on set by their own personal armies of hair, make-up and costume artists. Because they are constantly photographed here in only the most glamorous and overtly sexed-up ways. In fact, if you didn't know any better, with all the loving slow-mo close-ups, you'd swear you were watching a two-hour lip gloss and shampoo commercial. As a result, the musical numbers, unfortunately, never end up being about the music. They're always about how sexy the girls are.

Which is too bad, since that isn't the story the script is trying to tell.

I realize I'm tilting at windmills on this point. I am painfully aware that people in movies are several orders of magnitude more attractive than us mere mortals. That's how the universe works. I know that.

And I'm also painfully aware that the Hollywood star system is, and always will be, in full force and effect. The "Talent" comes first and story is pushed to the end of the line. Concessions always get made. Craft is always sacrificed at the altar of Commerce. Because, let's be honest, without the Talent, the movie doesn't get made in the first place. I know that, too.

But I would have LOVED to see this very same movie made with unknowns. Girls who maybe were real-life musicians and not overly-styled, overly-packaged, overly-engineered Disney-bots. Girls who didn't travel with teams of agents, publicists and stylists. Girls who could maybe be allowed to look like actual girls. At least once in a while.

In short, this really should have been an indie film. It should have been cast with punky girls who could actually rock -- not hot girls who could wear make-up and pose.

But it wasn't. And I really need to get over the fact that the world doesn't work the way I want it to.

But all that said, ultimately, it really is a testament to how well the other elements of the movie worked that, despite my complaints, the movie was still so goddamn charming!

And at the end of the day, I really dug it. Honest!

So if the movie's good, why didn't anybody go see it?

Marketing. Marketing. Marketing.

The geniuses in charge of selling this film took one look at the cast list and decided their entire marketing budget should be blown on TV spots plugged between episodes of DeGrassi and Hannah Montana. Then they patted themselves on the back, knocked off early and presumably spent the rest of the day eating lead paint chips and rubbing gravel into their hair.

Because they’re fucking morons.

It's obvious that nobody actually watched this movie before putting together the marketing strategy.

I work in New York City and I never saw a single BandSlam poster in the subway, on a bus, phone booth, taxi … anywhere. Now, bear in mind, a few years back there were posters all over the damn place for the Tara Reid/Christian Slater debacle Alone in the Dark, which was directed by Uwe Boll, the man who makes Ed Wood look like C.B. DeMille.

Apart from some TV ads my friends with kids swear they saw on the Disney Channel, I’m not aware of ANY other attempts to tell the world at large that this movie existed.

And that's a pity. Because while this movie may have kids IN it, it isn't necessarily FOR kids. This is a movie by and for people whose love of music is deep and broad. And that's a category that does not include today's 'tweens.

Just look at all the musical references: David Bowie, Cheap Trick, The Sex Pistols, U2, The Ramones, Patty Smith, and on and on. Tragically, today’s 'tweens have ZERO idea who any of those people are. (Well, they MAY have a vague notion that U2 might be that one old guy who’s always talking about India or something.)

But because this 'tween generation has been studied and focused grouped and feverishly marketed at since they were zygotes, they don’t have any sense of musical history. They haven’t been allowed to. The giant corporate machine that’s programmed to keep them distracted with shiny things while siphoning off their disposable cash will not permit it. Their knowledge of music starts with Barney and ends with The Ting Tings.

This movie should have been marketed for adults. Adults who grew up on John Hughes and Cameron Crowe and even a little Savage Steve Holland. Adults who enjoyed School of Rock. Adults who dug High Fidelity. This isn't an edgy movie, but it is a sweet, heartfelt throwback. With zero brainless toilet humor and some solid, three-dimensional characters.

Hell, swap out the iPods for Walkmen and the camera phones for VHS camcorders, and this movie could easily have been set in 1987. And you know what? Setting it in ’87 might have made a world of difference for the soft-headed marketing department. Maybe then they’d have seen it as the sweet, smart coming-of-age story that it is. And not High School Musical 4.

On a side note, I also feel that I have to take the movie reviewing community to task a little bit on this one.

A cursory look at Rotten Tomatoes shows BandSlam has one of the highest scores of the year. 80% among all reviewers and very respectable 89% among their top tier reviewers. Great score, right? Sure is. And well deserved.

But my problem is that so many of these “positive” reviews are peppered with mean-spirited back-handed compliments. Many of them in the vein of: “It wasn't nearly as wretched as I expected!” Or: “It’s better than these shitty teen musicals usually are.”

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating, but not by much. Check them out. Some of them are pretty nasty considering they’re supposed to be good notices.

To me, that’s just lazy. Not to mention, a little cowardly. It just shows you that many reviewers went into this movie with their knives drawn. They were resentful that they were being forced to review what they thought was going to be High School Musical 4. They were pissed before they even parked the car.

But then the movie they saw wasn't anything like what they were expecting. (Thanks again, Marketing!) They actually found themselves charmed by it. Maybe even actively liking it.

But that was a problem for them. Since they’d already pre-written their pissy, resentful rants on the way to the theater. What to do? Rework the whole thing? But they’d already gotten their blood up to trash the entire 'tween musical genre! There must be a way they could express their surprisingly positive response to the movie they saw … while still slamming the movie they were expecting.

And that’s exactly what a lot of them did.

Because they couldn't just give the movie an unqualified positive review. Could they? One free of passive aggression and back-handed slights? Nope. If they did, then people would think they actually LIKE this sort of movie. Heaven forefend! And then nobody will ever take them seriously again as professional arbiters of quality cinematic art. Better keep the praise at arm’s length. Otherwise people might think you’re gay. Or ... something.

Look, the problem is, The World has the wrong idea about what sort of movie this really is. And whose fault is that? Whose job was it to tell the world exactly what kind of movie this was?

Oh, right! The mouth-breathing, ball-dropping retards in Summit/Walden marketing departments!

And so ... we come full circle.

Let us hope that several jobs are deservedly lost.

Rent or buy the DVD. Seriously. This movie isn't what you think.

It's good.

Till next we meet ...

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