Tuesday, August 11, 2009

"Bandslam" in tune with teen sensibilities

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Had Cameron Crowe and the late John Hughes collaborated on a movie populated by Disney Channel superstars, the result might have looked and sounded a lot like Todd Graff's "Bandslam." And that's meant as a compliment.

An energetic, if overlong, music-driven comedy set against the backdrop of a high school battle-of-the-bands competition, the film manages to come up with a fresh backbeat for the familiar alienated teen refrain, boosted by a talented cast and authentic soundtrack.

Although the presence of "High School Musical" sensation Vanessa Hudgens and Aly Michalka (better known as the Aly half of pop music duo Aly & AJ) might be the main draw, there's plenty to keep post-tween audiences amused, though they might not know that from the marketing. Summit Entertainment releases the film Friday (August 14).

Relative newcomer Gaelan Connell, who comes across as a younger, less-assured John Cusack or Tom Hanks, is ideally cast as Will, a socially awkward kid with an exhaustive knowledge of music whose overprotective mom (Lisa Kudrow) relocates them to New Jersey at the beginning of his junior year.

The school's obsession with a Tri-State battle of the bands is all it takes to draw Will out of his iPod-connected shell, striking up budding friendships with Hudgens' Sa5m (the 5 is silent), the moody, outcast type, and Michalka's Charlotte, the aggressive it-girl leader of a three-piece garage band that becomes a real contender under Will's tutelage.

Actor-turned-director Graff, who made his behind-the-camera debut with 2003's "Camp," instills "Bandslam" with a truthful, youthful sensibility, and the script he penned with Josh A. Cagan really seems to know its stuff where its musical influences are concerned. Despite all its YouTube/MySpace trappings, there's something very throwback '80s about the glib, guarded tone of its young characters and the world they're reluctantly inheriting.

But there's nothing that isn't assured about the performances, whether spoken or sung, and cinematographer Eric Steelberg ("Juno") provides the requisite visual liveliness. It's matched by an eclectic soundtrack that runs the gamut from Bowie (who figures prominently in the script) to Violent Femmes to Bread, with the latter's "Everything I Own" given an uptempo ska/reggae reworking circa 1987 Boy George.

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