BANDSLAM (PG) Director: Todd Graff Running time: 111 minutes ***
IF WE'VE learnt anything from X Factor and Pop Idol, it's that while winning a public talent competition might launch the careers of a few cruise-ship crooners, it can't help you become a rock star. Not that this dissuades the aspiring teenage pop acts who compete in Bandslam.
The plot is as generic as can be: after enduring bullying at his old school, Will (Gaelan Connell) has moved to New Jersey with his mother (Lisa Kudrow) and is bewildered when he is sought out by Charlotte (Aly Michalka), a high school senior and A-list cheerleader who wants him to turn a bunch of misfits into a winning beat combo. On bass guitar is Bug (Charlie Saxton), whose rock attitudes recall a scaled-down version of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea, his lead guitarist is Omar (Tim Jo), an Asian who affects a Britpop accent, and their drummer is school bad-boy Basher (Ryan Donowho), who is hoping to get off with Will's mother. Rounding off their sound are a studious classical pianist and cellist, conscripted to provide keyboards and strings, while the horn section comprises two members of the high school marching band.
Things perk up even further when Will appears to make some extracurricular headway with his school project partner, a surly goth girl called Sa5m ("the 5 is silent"), played by High School Musical's Vanessa Hudgens – although it says something about the souped-up demands of modern high school stories that even the emo character is drop dead gorgeous. On the other hand, Sa5m might want to rethink her hi3deous hats. However, like everyone else, Will can't help being drawn to Charlotte, a schoolgirl whose elaborate hair and makeup suggest daily access to a beauty salon.
In a matter of weeks Will transforms his nerd squad into a slick, hard-driving band who strut all the right defiant poses – even though the band eventually opt to perform one of Charlotte's compositions, a horrifically insipid piece of MOR that would make Sheryl Crowe wince.
It's hard to dislike Bandslam, despite the absence of brilliance. Had it become any cuter, the film might have turned into the inane big brother of High School Musical. Had it been any smarter, it might have seemed too esoteric for a mass audience. (As it is, Will's encyclopedic knowledge of rock lineage and first date pilgrimage to New York's legendary music club CBGBs is the only overtly scholarly thing about this film.) Were it any raunchier, it would have risked losing its family-friendly PG rating. As it stands, it proceeds toward the big showdown with the good-natured competence of a 21st century school play staging of Rock Around The Clock; one of the teens might shriek "inappropriate" when a mother tries to continue a conversation by following him into the shower, but Bandslam teens do not plunge, and are not even tempted to plunge, into a netherworld of drugs and sex. The nearest we get to edgy here is two awkward kisses. And even that was too much for some at the screening I attended: "Yuk," disapproved a small boy in my row.
Will's enthusiasm for The Ramones, The Clash and Thin Lizzy provides the film with scant, but probably sufficient, pop culture credibility, but his real hero worship is reserved for David Bowie – possibly because, unlike Will's other heroes, he's still alive and has enough wind in his bellows to make a cameo appearance in the film. It's only mildly alarming to note that the Thin White Duke is starting to resemble the Laughing Gnome. He also appears to be surfing from an internet cafe, even though he is millionaire rock icon David Bowie and presumably can afford his own WiFi. Maybe Iman limits his computer hours at home.
On general release from Friday, bandslam-movie.com