If bad marketing can torpedo a film's chances at the box office, then Bandslam is one such unfortunate victim to fall prey to shoddy promotional efforts, where its High School Musical, kiddie-like trailer would have put off the non-Disney fans, and unfairly slapped on a juvenile perception on this film that had so much of a mature aspect and indie-spirit going for it, from its sensitively crafted characters to its eclectic choice of songs that just did wonders.
The gist of the film centers on its protagonist Will Burton (Gaelan Connell), who is the new kid in town, moving with his single mom Karen (Lisa Kudrow) to a new town to try and start things afresh. He broods a lot, and narrates his letter of the day to his idol David Bowie. Priding himself as a musical encyclopedia of sorts, his human studies classes will see him paired up with goth chick Sa5m (the 5 is silent), played by HSM alumni and Efron-less Vanessa Hudgens, and in his after-school hours, his good Samaritan turn and easy going nature sees him making friends with senior year Charlotte (Alyson Michalka). Not bad for a new kid actually to have been taken notice of by some of the hottest chicks in school.
Then there's Bandslam the competition, where Charlotte ropes Will in to be their manager, and he has to assemble a rag tag team of musicians, and basically be pushed to the forefront of making things happen, from recruitment, to song selection, demo tapes, website, the whole works. From a nobody before to having his school life all planned out for him, this of course leads to plenty of zero to hero moments that you would be familiar with especially if you're a fan of such genre from the Japanese. But director Todd Graff had injected the film with enough maturity to avoid being just another clone, and as such made this highly enjoyable from the get go.
But the strength of this movie laid in its portrayal of teenage relationships, be it parental where one's teenage life starts to fill up, leaving out one's parents who feel that you're abandoning them for more happening peers, or the platonic, which is often the catalyst for jealousy and misunderstandings. Then there's the romantic angle which is typically saccharine sweet, if not for well placed humour to break things up a little bit. Being a film primarily about contemporary teenagers who grapple with perennial issues like confidence, believing in oneself, identity crisis and the sense of belonging, this growing up tale also had enough backstory built into it that just led to a richer experience, without having the need to show everything explicitly.
However the film played down the typical stereotypes that come to plague the teenage movies, such as the blonde who has to be Ms Popular – in fact she's Ms Quirky here – or that Goth Chick who has to be Ms Emo. On the contrary, it shattered some of the stereotypes through excellent characterization that makes you look beyond their physical make up and come to understand the common concerns that you would have identified with (given old blokes like me who are way past the teenage years). The great looking leads (well, some geeks here are pleasing to the eye at least) also helped, and what more having real life singers and performers like Michalka, Hudgens and the other performing bands helped to lend some authenticity to the film's musical elements too. As the main, relatively unknown lead, Gaelan Connell held the ground firmly, and while his character had the weight-of-the-world-on-his-shoulders look, Connell was charismatic and likable to have made you want to root for him and his cause, without bringing in any irritation of smugness.
If you subscribe to the mantra of no music no life, then Bandslam is your film. Being a sucker for zero to hero type stories that I've weaned on from Japan, this film had those formulaic elements done right, and more, with its cast anchoring a solid emotional core and a finale that you'll find hard pressed not to groove to. Forget its marketing people, otherwise you'll be unfairly missing out on what I would shortlist for my end of the year top 10 list. Definitely highly recommended, and watch out for that surprise at the end which just summed the theme of hope in the film really nicely!