April 12, 2010
Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ***½
I've long been in love with the work of Todd Graff, starting close to 30 years ago, when the then-actor appeared on Broadway opposite Liz Callaway in the terrific (if over-produced) little musical, Baby. Graff was delightful in the show: funny, moving, real and immensely talented. His work as an actor in films (The Abyss, Opportunity Knocks) has been somehow disappointing: Always good, he's not nearly been used to full advantage. Writing and directing have put him on the movie map, however. He did the screenplay for Angie (the sweet, tart film that starred Geena Davis and gave James Gandolfini a first burst of recognition) and the unnecessary American remake of the classic Dutch thriller The Vanishing. But then, as writer/director, he's come up with two winners: the splendid Camp, a one-of-a-kind musical based in part on Graff's own experience at a camp for budding musical theater performers, and now another musical of sorts: Bandslam.
Bandslam tracks a put-upon high school student from Ohio (Gaelan Connell, shown above, center) and his mom (Lisa Kudrow, wonderful; I'd like to have seen more of her here) who move to New Jersey to begin life anew. There he falls in with a gorgeous blond senior (Alyson Michalka, above, right) and a quiet-but-pretty brunette (Vanessa Hudgens, above left: yes, of those High School Musicals). Before long a new band is taking shape.
Graff knows kids; he knows music, movies and theater -- and the best of all of which he puts to use here. He's also smart enough to give us more and better than the usual high-school, kid's-stuff crap. His script is full of wit and charm, even if some of his themes -- death & identity, for instance -- cannot be properly developed in the film's 99-minute running time. And the band he creates is wonderful: not simply the usual electric guitars, but piano, cello, and a fab brass section, too. (I hope kids will listen and hear what real music can sound like -- and discover why this band really is the best of show.)
The cast, from principals to those in small roles, delivers brightly. Graff manages, as well, to serve up a smart finale in which the band does its best, and life still interferes. But this writer/director knows that winning isn't, after all, everything -- besides which, these days, there is always more than one way to win.
Bandslam deserves a new life on DVD after a short run in theaters. As for the things-to-look-forward-to department, Graff's next project might be directing a remake of one of the great Broadway musicals Damn Yankees -- with Jim Carrey and Jake Gyllenhaal possibly attached, plus Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz in the writing department. We live in hope.
Posted by cphillips at April 12, 2010 9:00 AM