It would have been interesting to sit in on the pitch meeting where "Bandslam" was hatched. The thumbnail summary probably went something like this:
O.K., think "High School Musical" meets "Juno," only without the teen pregnancy. It's kind of grunge, kind of "High Fidelity," kind of "Napoleon Dynamite," also parts of "The Commitments" and "School of Rock," with a kind of "Slumdog Millionaire" feel. You know how folks love contests. And underdogs. And impossible romantic situations ...
If that Frankenstein monster sounds like a weirdly incoherent mess, well, that's "Bandslam." Directed by Todd Graff (whose previous movie, 2003's "Camp," trod similar musical coming-of-age territory with far more effective results), "Bandslam" has some fun details but never gets beyond paint-by-numbers territory. While it's better than it has to be, it still makes very little sense.
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"Bandslam" stars Vanessa Hudgens and Aly Michalka from various Disney franchises ("High School Musical" and "Phil of the Future," respectively). But the central figure of the storyline is Gaelan Connell's Will Burton, would-be Svengali to a band of upstart outcasts.
Those three traipse around a landscape not even vaguely recognizable as high school, despite some amusing bits. The protagonist rock band's tentative early steps are fun to watch. So is Will's endearingly awkward attempt at a first kiss, as well as his recurring habit of writing to David Bowie.
Yet none of the movie's characters or situations feels the least bit real. Fittingly, at one point Will dances with a cardboard cutout of Hudgens. That's how everyone in "Bandslam" feels, like a two-dimensional archetype.
There's Hudgens' Sa5m ("The 'five' is silent," she explains) as the pretentious, arty emo girl; Michalka's Charlotte, the slumming former cheerleader who is hyper-aware of class lines; and Connell as the rock geek with encyclopedic knowledge.
Probably the most believable character is Lisa Kudrow as Connell's beleaguered mother, even though she gets saddled with the corniest lines throughout."
The kids engage in a lot of snappy back-and-forth exchanges, but most of it doesn't ring true, sounding like what parents imagine their teenagers say. And there's a sort of time-warp feel to "Bandslam," too, in that the big prize for the battle-of-the-bands contest is a record deal (something no band even wants anymore).
There are major issues over absent fathers, a plot device shoehorned into the storyline with all the elegance of an apple stuffed into the open maw of a roast pig. All the disputes resolve themselves just a little too neatly.
Predictably, redemption of a sort arrives at the big contest finale -- where our merry band of misfits doesn't get what they want, but they do get what they need. The funny thing is, I bet that very description came up at the movie's pitch meeting.