The new Walden Media production, Bandslam, is for the most part an entertaining story about the new kid in town, Will Burton (Gaelan Connell), a classic-rock purist and typical loner who suddenly finds himself drawing the attention of two beautiful and musically gifted classmates (Vanessa Hudgens from High School Musical and Alyson Michalka from the pop duo Aly and AJ). The musical element — a mix of the school-band theme from School of Rock and the resistance to the decline of rock from High Fidelity — works, as does the chemistry between the main characters. The question is whether those virtues are enough to overcome a storyline that is alternately predictable and offensively manipulative of viewers’ emotions.
After moving to New Jersey with his mother, Karen (Lisa Kudrow), Will quickly learns about Bandslam, a battle-of-the-bands competition described as “Texas-high-school-football big.” A quirky teen who calls to mind both Cyril (Daniel Stern) from Breaking Away and Jon Heder’s Napoleon Dynamite, Will is initially attracted to his female complement at the school, a low-key goth (Hudgens) who, when asked her name, writes out “Sa5m” and explains, “the 5 is silent.”
But he soon finds himself immersed in the world of Charlotte (Michalka), a former cheerleader. At odds with her ex-boyfriend, Ben (Scott Porter), Charlotte left his band, the most popular one in school. Now the lead singer of her own group, she quickly — too quickly to be believed — recognizes Will’s musical sagacity and recruits him as the band’s manager. There are predictable tensions between the two girls. To Charlotte’s greeting of Sa5m, “Nice to meet you,” Sa5m responds, “I’ve known you since fifth grade.”
One of the film’s strengths is its PG-rated humor. The scene in which Charlotte offers Will a lesson in how to make his initial move to kiss Sa5m, while an astonished Karen watches from inside her house, is exceeded in humor only by Will’s attempt to put that lesson into practice.
Fueled in part by their shared love of a bygone era of rock music, the growing affection between Will and Sa5m is genuine. On a trip to New York City, they break into what is left of the defunct-but-still-famous rock club CBGB. They wander around looking at the graffiti and relishing the lingering presence of acts such as The Ramones and Patti Smith. Representative of that era in Will’s mind is David Bowie, to whom he sends daily e-mails about his life and love of music. The e-mails, which Will reads periodically in a voiceover track, provide a running commentary on the hopes and miseries of high-school existence.
Of course, the music celebrated at CBGB is effectively deprived of its subversive punch. Bowie makes a cameo appearance as a sort of avuncular guy in need of a trim, not as the transgendered Ziggy Stardust. The finale, with Sa5m singing a version of Bread’s “Anything I Own,” redone for the high-school-musical generation, only reinforces the impression that the film contributes to precisely the degeneration of music that the main characters purport to decry.
The real problem with the film is that it forces itself to turn a funny, heartwarming story into a deep meditation on tragedy and its overcoming. The last part of the film contains a number of big revelations, about a very dark secret from Will’s past and about the true motives of some of the characters, at least one of whom appears good, then bad, and turns out to be really, really good.
Bandslam is not really good; it is not going to call to mind the films of John Hughes in this, the week of his death. But, as entertainment targeted at family members from tweens to adults, it manages to be good enough.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.