Every week Will Burton (Gaelan Connell) writes a letter to his idol David Bowie, talking about his teenage woes. A troubled past has made it impossible for him to fit in at high school. So Will is overjoyed when his mom Karen (Friends’ Lisa Kudrow) lands a new job in Cincinnati, giving him a fresh start. At his new school Will befriends surly Sa5m (Vanessa Hudgens) (“the 5 is silent”), but also attracts some surprising attention from lovely senior Charlotte Banks (Alyson Michalka), a kindergarten aide and aspiring singer-songwriter caring for her ailing father. Impressed with his musical knowledge, Charlotte takes Will under her wing. She encourages his on-off romance with Sa5m and enlists him as manager of her band, comprised of Omar (Tim Jo), a Chinese guitarist with a fake British accent, and clueless bass player Bug (Charlie Saxton) who has cribbed his style, none too subtly from Flea out of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Their ambition is to headline “Bandslam” - an annual battle of the bands competition, but the road to rock glory takes some tragic turns as Will discovers he’s not the only one with a secret to hide.
With this energetic teen movie, co-writer/director Todd Graff was hoping to do for teenage rock bands what High School Musical (2005) did for young stage performers. Of course most discerning rock fans have an aversion to squeaky clean teen flicks and stayed away. Well, they missed out on something special because Bandslam is another joy from the Walden Media stable. Smart and sassy with fully-rounded characters and a dry wit closer to an indie sensibility than the crass humour found in most high school fare. Best of all, the plot packs a sucker punch of gut-wrenching emotion and borderline philosophical undertones.
The rock-underdogs-make-good setup is almost misleading as to the plot’s true intent, but Graff’s vibrant direction captures the thrill of a young band finding their sound. Will recruits Basher Martin (Ryan Donowho), a drummer with anger management issues (who takes a fancy to his mom!), then adds a brass section, keyboardist (Lisa Chung) and cellist (Elvy Yost) to the mix, creating a bouncy, feel good mix of ska, punk and pop that is more convincing and easier-on-the-ears than most high school movie bands. At first, Will’s burgeoning romance with Sa5m threatens to derail the plot, as they bond with a visit to CBGB’s, the legendary club that kick-started careers for the Ramones, Blondie and Patti Smith, and lament its passing (never mind that CB's audience of surly rock journos and poseurs irked bands by refusing to applaud or dance!). However, his fumbled attempts to steal a kiss are funny (Sa5m’s deadpan response: “Have you seen Evil Dead 2? It’s my favourite movie ever”) and their romance culminates in an emotionally devastating classroom confrontation where Sa5m uses a mirror to describe Will as "a reflective surface" before he responds with a sweetly ingenious home video apology. Naturally, Graff ensures Sa5m also has musical talent, thus weaving their subplot into the main story thread.
Vanessa Hudgens has an innate girl-next-door sweetness that leaves her sadly miscast as a surly rock chick (“Emotion is overrated”), but Aly Michalka is a real find. A genuine singer-songwriter and musician (as part of platinum selling duo Aly & A.J. along with her sister Amanda), Michalka brings her winning charisma to one of the more complex and compelling characters to be found in a teen movie. Once a cheerleader who ran with the popular crowd, Charlotte is now seemingly on a mission to change her life. Her friendship with Will is far more crucial to the movie than his romance a facet underlined in a beautifully played exchange between Michalka and Lisa Kudrow's concerned mom. Gaelan Connell is also strong, especially once the story deepens beyond the familiar geek-meets-dream-girl scenario into far more ambitious territory.
The big question, which lesser teen movies leave unanswered, is why would a gorgeous, pouting senior take such a maternal interest in a high school geek? Charlotte even teaches Will how to kiss! The answer, when it comes, is heartbreaking as is the explanation behind Will's nickname: “Dewey.” Thereafter events grow increasingly tragic. Mistakes are made, feelings are hurt, and characters rail against fate and an unfair universe. The subtext grows downright existential as Sa5m leads discussions pondering whether the group had any control over their lives or have been manipulated by a greater force. Karma is a major theme in the movie. This idea of whether by doing good for others we can enact a positive change in our lives and the universe at large, or whether we are doomed to cyclically repeat our past mistakes. The “bandslam” itself becomes a crucible, a moment of heart-in-your-mouth tension where the crowd cruelly taunt Will onstage and somebody else's good intentions cost the band their only song. Hudgens ups her game by leading the big, feel-good sing-a-long. Although the finale weaves in a cameo from a certain pop chameleon, there is something quite touching and clever in its use of teen internet culture as a means of underlining its philosophical point about young people shaping their own destiny. Make no mistake, Bandslam is a great teen movie.