[Screen It]

(2009) (Gaelan Alexander Connell, Alyson Michalka) (PG)

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Dramedy: A music-loving introvert becomes the manager for a high school band and its charismatic lead singer, all while hanging out with his new friend for whom he starts to develop romantic feelings.
When his mom, Karen (LISA KUDROW), gets a new teaching job in New Jersey, teenager Will Burton (GAELAN ALEXANDER CONNELL) moves with her there from Cincinnati where he was routinely harassed by his classmates, resulting in him withdrawing into his love of music. Now with a blank slate at his new high school, Will hopes to start life anew, and ends up being befriended by Sa5m (VANESSA HUDGENS), a quiet, book-reading girl who not only informs him that the 5 in her name is silent, but that he's also arrived in the world of Bandslam.

That's a tri-state rock band competition that's as big as Texas high school football and where the winning group is awarded a recording contract. This year's favorite is Ben Wheatley and The Glory Dogs, fronted by Ben Wheatley (SCOTT PORTER), but Will finds himself more interested in Charlotte (ALYSON MICHALKA), the former head cheerleader and prom queen turned social do-gooder who recruits Will to help her run their school's daycare center.

Sa5m warns Will about her, saying that appearances can be deceiving, and he soon learns that not only was she once Ben's girlfriend, but she was also in his band. She still plays with the likes of guitarist Omar (TIM JO) and bassist Bug (CHARLIE SAXTON) in an unofficial garage band, but being aware of Will's expertise in the genre, she allows him to make suggestions.

That eventually involves expanding the band to include the likes of drummer Basher (RYAN DONOWHO), as well a cellist, pianist and three-man horn section. As Will helps Charlotte get her band in shape for Bandslam, she helps him in the finer points of romancing Sa5m for whom he's now developed romantic feelings.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Although bands, musical groups and solo singing acts were around for decades before the 1950s, it wasn't until the advent of rock and roll that mainstream kids dreamed of following in the footsteps of those already in the business. And that's because while the likes of Count Basie, Frank Sinatra and others of their generations were popular among adults, it was the arrival of Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, etc. and what they represented that got the youngsters' musical ambitions revved up.

Not surprisingly, Hollywood followed suite, with a bevy of films being released that showcased one or more such amateurs hoping to make it big. And since new acts keeping doing just that, such "let's put a band together" flicks keep being made.

The latest is "Bandslam," a mediocre picture that brings nothing new to the table but may just appease some fans of the two leading ladies, Vanessa Hudgens and Alyson Michalka. While the latter might not exactly be a household name if said abode doesn't contain tweens enamored with the sisterly pop group Aly & AJ, the former is clearly a star among the same set of viewers thanks to her involvement in the three "High School Musical" flicks.

The biggest obstacle facing writer/director Todd Graff and co-scribe Josh A. Cagan is doing something interesting or novel with this well-worn sub genre. After all, 1991's "The Commitments" might just be the best such movie ever made (not only for the great music -- granted all covers of classics -- but also due to the performers in it amazingly having little if any prior acting experience), while 1996's "That Thing You Do!" is engaging, charming, highly entertaining and contains a terrific (if slightly overplayed) title song.

Best of all, both (along with countless other films) perfectly capture the excitement as well as difficulties of putting a band together, coupled with the inevitable in-fighting, egos and other ugly developments that usually mar most such musical endeavors and ultimately derail the vast majority of them. Granted, those flicks were aimed at adults, while the likes of "School of Rock" aimed much younger, thus leaving some recent open ground for this pic.

The filmmakers wisely opt not to focus solely on such putting the band together matters (although that material is present), and instead have their movie go on a more personal level regarding the three central characters. Playing opposite the ladies is Gaelan Alexander Connell as something of a cinematic cousin to Patrick Fugit's William Miller in "Almost Famous" (a young guy completely enamored with music and amazed to get sucked up into that world), while Hudgens and Michalka's characters have their own internal issues that have resulted in their current public and private demeanors.

Alas, said character points and related developments unfold in standard movie form (little bits here and there, followed by the heavy revelations in the third act) and thus feel somewhat watered down by the contrivances and formula. Also present in act three is the antagonist (played by Scott Porter) finally going into full villain mode, with that arriving to amp up the rivalry between the bands to set the stage for the big music competition at the end (yet another bit of pure formula).

All of which leads to what may be the film's biggest sin in not delivering terrific music throughout or at least one memorable, signature song that viewers will be singing/humming hours, days or weeks after seeing the film.

Granted, this isn't exactly my type of music, but without something catchy like Aly and AJ's 2007 hit, "Potential Breakup Song" or something fun to watch like the highly choreographed numbers in the "HSM" flicks, this entire production comes off as recycled mediocrity. Younger kids may enjoy some or all of it, but in terms of being a tale about the formation of a band or even just the teen experience, it doesn't hit enough right or novel notes to strike a chord with most anyone else. "Bandslam" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed July 25, 2009 / Posted August 14, 2009

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