Bandslam (PG)

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The Independent Culture

Remember the kind of films Cameron Crowe used to make, and the kind John Cusack used to star in?

If you combined the two, amped up the pop-rock soundtrack and threw in an emollient pinch of Disney you'd have something like Bandslam, Todd Graff's uneven but hugely charming tale of musical nerdery triumphant. It's like a throwback to the 1980s only with better haircuts and iPods instead of Sony Walkmans.

At its centre is a classically shy, disaffected youth, Will (Gaelan Connell), who's just moved with his mom (Lisa Kudrow) to New Jersey and a new highschool, where the main event is a tri-state battle-of-the-bands contest known as Bandslam – "like a Nuremberg rally produced by MTV". Will's interest in music is obsessive but introverted; umbilically attached to his iPod, he's a devotee of vintage rock and reggae, and he charts his uncertain progress via daydream emails to idol David Bowie. His wallflower status begins to change when school senior and ex-cheerleader Charlotte (Alyson Michalka) takes him under her wing, appointing him manager of her band I Can't Go On, I'll Go On (some name!) and advising him how best to woo his sulky classmate Sam (Vanessa Hudgens).

On the surface it looks a pretty conventional high-school romance, but the script (by Graff and Josh A Cagan) wisely refrains from tipping its hand too early. You're never quite sure, for instance, which of the two girls our hero is going to fall for, and the acting of all three leads honours the suspense. Hudgens and Michalka, already bona fide pop stars, both play very sweetly off newcomer Connell, who at times actually recalls a less good-looking (though no less endearing) John Cusack. You can easily imagine Cusack relishing the scene where Will takes Sam to see the legendary New York punk club CBGB; as they wander the disused basement bar, its walls still encrusted with posters for Patti Smith, The Ramones et al, their pilgrimage assumes the magical aura of an archaeologist swooning at cave paintings.

Watching this reminded me why I so admired Todd Graff's earlier Camp (2003), another eccentric musical which dared to doff its cap to Stephen Sondheim and Todd Rundgren, among others. The choice of soundtrack here is another eclectic mix of the great (Bowie, Nick Drake) and the neglected (a lovely song, "24 hours", by Liverpool band Shack), though you do wonder about Will's supposedly inspired management of Charlotte's band, which he converts from a modest three-piece to a rather overblown nine-piece with brass accompaniment. Given his professed love of art rock, could he not have come up with something less middle-of-the-road? I Can't Go On, I'll Go On start off like a cool garage band and end up sounding like The Boston Pops. And talking of ...I'll Go On, this movie does a bit, too. Yet I loved Bandslam all the same: Graff has wonderfully captured not just the emotional havoc of adolescence but its passionate belief in music as a life-changing force.