'Bandslam' Battles, Fought With Geeky Passion

The band in 'Bandslam' i i

hide captionHigh School (Hipster) Musical: Vanessa Hudgens (center) and her new bandmates — (from left) Charlie Saxton, Tim Jo, Ryan Donowho, Gaelan Connell and Alyson Michalka — are in it to win it, when "it" is a high-stakes New Jersey battle of the bands.

Van Redin/Summit Entertainment
The band in 'Bandslam'

High School (Hipster) Musical: Vanessa Hudgens (center) and her new bandmates — (from left) Charlie Saxton, Tim Jo, Ryan Donowho, Gaelan Connell and Alyson Michalka — are in it to win it, when "it" is a high-stakes New Jersey battle of the bands.

Van Redin/Summit Entertainment

Bandslam

  • Director: Todd Graff
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Running Time: 111 minutes

Rated PG: Some thematic elements and mild language

With: Alyson Michalka, Vanessa Hudgens, Gaelan Connell, Scott Porter

The first thing you notice about Will Burton, the ingratiating music-freak hero of Bandslam, is that he doesn't quite fit the teen-movie nerd archetype defined by Anthony Michael Hall and any number of other metal-mouthed, pimple-faced basket cases.

He's awkward, but not spazzy; retiring, but not a wallflower; smart, but not the type to have memorized the periodic table. As played by Gaelan Connell, in fact, Will seems more like a college kid forced to ride out a few painful years in high-school purgatory. At worst, he could grow up to be Adaptation's fictionalized Charlie Kaufman, with a receding frizz-line and flop sweat perpetually dampening his forehead. Even then, he stands to make a pretty interesting adult.

Will embodies everything that's good and true about Bandslam, a PG-rated musical dramedy that features freshly scrubbed Radio Disney stars like Vanessa Hudgens and Aly Michalka, but gets a little (if not quite enough) distance from the Mouse.

Much like co-writer-director Todd Graff's debut feature, Camp — about the goings-on at a summer camp for musical-theater prodigies — Bandslam works best when it's focused on young, adorably neurotic creative types putting on a show.

The soundtrack, far more eclectic and purposeful than the iTunes playlist that is (500) Days Of Summer, does a lot of the heavy lifting: Appropriating favorites from The Velvet Underground & Nico and Glen Campbell (not to mention Peter Bjorn and John), the film honors a protagonist who writes letters to David Bowie and treats the bombed-out interior of CBGB like a holy shrine.

Vanessa Hudgens, Gaelan Connell and Alyson Michalka in 'Bandslam' i i

hide captionShe knows about popular: Hudgens' Sa5m ("The 5 is silent") and Will (Connell) are music geeks who get some unexpected attention from in-crowd queen Charlotte (Michalka), who wants Will to lead her band to victory to spite an ex-boyfriend.

Van Redin/Summit Entertainment
Vanessa Hudgens, Gaelan Connell and Alyson Michalka in 'Bandslam'

She knows about popular: Hudgens' Sa5m ("The 5 is silent") and Will (Connell) are music geeks who get some unexpected attention from in-crowd queen Charlotte (Michalka), who wants Will to lead her band to victory to spite an ex-boyfriend.

Van Redin/Summit Entertainment

Expecting to hide behind his earbuds after moving from Cincinnati to New Jersey with his mother (Lisa Kudrow), Will instead gets caught up in his new school's obsession with "Bandslam," an annual battle-of-the-bands competition that offers a recording contract to the winner. Though Will doesn't play an instrument, his critical ear attracts the attention of a reformed Mean Girl named Charlotte (Michalka), who wants his help in putting together musicians to challenge her ex-boyfriend's band.

Gaelan Connell crowdsurfs in 'Bandslam.' i i

hide captionSurf's up: Will (Connell) comes into his own as the manager of the fledgling band "I Can't Go On, I'll Go On." The 20-year-old actor used to play in his own band, Exist — in the basement of his parents' house.

Van Redin/Summit Entertainment
Gaelan Connell crowdsurfs in 'Bandslam.'

Surf's up: Will (Connell) comes into his own as the manager of the fledgling band "I Can't Go On, I'll Go On." The 20-year-old actor used to play in his own band, Exist — in the basement of his parents' house.

Van Redin/Summit Entertainment

Will sets to work molding the band in the image of the art-rock outfit Arcade Fire, adding brass, string and keyboard to a three-piece rock combo and fusing the motley bunch like he's a decaffeinated answer to Jack Black's Dewey Finn in School Of Rock.

Meanwhile Charlotte's overpowering allure knocks him for a loop, and Hudgens' character, a raven-haired bookworm named Sa5m — "The 5 is silent" — also vies for his affection. (It must be said that there's not enough black nail polish in the world to convincingly transform Hudgens, of High School Musical fame, into a mopey emo kid.)

As with Camp, Graff understands the quirky wiring of kids drawn to the performing arts: The best parts of Bandslam — the first two-thirds, more or less — capture their volatility and vibrancy with a light touch.

Then it goes haywire in the final act, piling one melodramatic revelation on top of another as if this buoyant coming-of-age musical were suddenly Stella Dallas. In the end, Will seems too hip for his own movie: If he weren't in it, you'd imagine him being the type to walk out of it.

Scott Tobias is the Film Editor of The A.V. Club.

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