Music specialists and movie directors, often in conjunction, have a tough job to do when it comes to curating the soundtracks and scores to their projects, balancing out what they love with what the film’s audiences will love.
Director Todd Graff had an exceptional challenge ahead of him with “Bandslam,” out Friday, when he combines encyclopedic music knowledge and passion with a teen and pre-teen core that’s still graduating from “High School Musical.”
That’s the premise, too, of his characters: music nerd and new kid Will (Gaelan Connell) walks into a New Jersey high school obsessed with the forthcoming, state-wide Battle of the Bands. He starts managing a pop-rock outfit, headed by senior hottie Charlotte (Aly Michalka), and falls for emo wallflower Sa5m (Vanessa Hudgens) (the five is silent, duh).
Our protagonist is prone to rambling about the Velvet Underground and the Who, claims David Bowie his (mostly) invisible confidante and musical muse and name-drops Arcade Fire and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (his inspiration for his band moniker, I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On).
It is perhaps no coincidence that Bowie, who makes an appearance in the script and on the soundtrack (with “Rebel, Rebel”), is also a notorious fan of those latter two groups. And less of a surprise, then, that some of the supervision and mixing work for “Bandslam” was done by Adam Lasus, a genius producer and musician behind none other than Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.
Lasus works in tandem with music supervisor Linda Cohen (“Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, “There Will Be Blood,” “About A Son”), who owns one of the best pairs of ears in the business – who also happens to be married to Lasus and previously worked with Graff on his 2003 film “Camp.”
She and Graff fill out the soundtrack with more older-skewing artists like Nick Drake, Shack and Wilco, and have Michalka and Hudgens (more the former than the latter) do covers like Steve Wynn’s “Amphetimine,” Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me” a ska-inflected take on “Everything I Own” by Bread. They leave their personal tastes, their fingerprints, all over the place.
On top of that, Connell’s own band Exist and a bunch of decent indie bands from Austin, where the movie was primarily filmed, make appearances on the soundtrack alongside slick pop-rock bands like Honor Society – signed to Disney-owned label Hollywood.
In fact, Disney’s imprint is all over the place, laying claim to the music careers of both leading actresses via Hollywood, as well as their on-screen careers: Hudgens, of course, was leading lady in “High School Musical” while Michalka, of the pop duo Aly & AJ, starred in a couple Disney channel productions plus appeared in “High School Musical 3.”
Which is why Joseph Magee, part of the music team for “Bandslam,” was a good fit for the job. He was a supervising music mixer for stuff like “HSM3” and with the “Hannah Montana” franchise, on top of other musical-inspired films like “Sister Act” and “Coyote Ugle.”
But it’s also no surprise that Magee had his hand in “High Fidelity,” one of my top five (heh) favorite films of all time, and survives on its own music snobbery. There are moments in “Bandslam” that scream “Hey, look at me! Look how much I know about music,” which, contrary to internet syntax, can be a really, really good thing for teens just falling into the music rabbit hole — just look at Jason Reitman and Peter Aftermath’s work on “Juno.”
That’s what John Hughes did. As my cohort Melinda Newman suggested in her essay on his death, Hughes used his knowledge for good, trying to turn his audiences on to the Psychedelic Furs and the Simple Minds as they fumbled through their gawky adolescences. Michalka, in “Bandslam,” is like Hughes’ Molly Ringwald characters mushed into a single entity, with her I’m-too-good-for-this-band-and-Saturday-detention past (Claire in “The Breakfast Club”) and bandleader-record-store-basketcase present (Samantha in “Sixteen Candles”).
There are few directors that in such a way straightforwardly address young audiences with the medium or sideplot of music. Cameron Crowe is another one of these, as he revitalized Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” in “Almost Famous” for a generation of aspiring rock ‘n’ rollers desperate to crash the party in the tour bus, myself included; he laid out musical trackwork for in “Singles” and “Say Anything” (another John Cusack touchstone).
I was actually pleasantly surprised by the film, by its self-awareness and humor, and ability to persevere with genuine characters like Will and his mom, played by Lisa Kudrow, despite crippling hyperbole. (An example of this is the Battle of the Bands scene, which is surreally polished and flawlessly professional. Comparitively, high school Battles more closely resemble a wake.)
It’s not Kidz Bop, thank goodness, so you have to give Graff and his music team credit where it’s due. No matter how the music got written in, I’m glad that it’s there to shepherd young movie-goers to a higher plain of musical enjoyment.