Most anybody who was a teenager after 1955 can relate completely to the idea of rock & roll as the path of deliverance from adolescent angst. Director Todd Graff takes full advantage of this in Bandslam. The story centers on teenage music lover Will Burton (Gaelan Connell), a social misfit who shuts out the classmates he hates with the help of his omnipresent iPod. He wants nothing more than to leave his Cleveland school, and one day that dream unexpectedly comes true when his single mother (Lisa Kudrow) lands a job in New Jersey. At his new school, Will is just happy to be anonymous, but he eventually starts a tentative friendship with a fellow misfit (Vanessa Hudgens) whose name, Sa5m, has a silent "5." And when the most popular girl in school (Aly Michalka) realizes (thanks to their shared appreciation for the Velvet Underground) that Will has spectacular taste in music, she gets him to manage her rock group so they can defeat her ex-boyfriend's band in Bandslam, an annual battle of the bands contest.
With a premise like that, it's hard not to draw comparisons to School of Rock. But where Richard Linklater's movie offered a ceaselessly enjoyable lesson in kiddie rebellion, Bandslam seems more enamored with the idea of rock -- and music in general -- as a source of comfort. It turns out that Will has a secret that explains why he's socially awkward, and also elucidates why he's so passionate about music. And Bandslam works in large part because they get the tunes right. None of the teen bands are life-changingly amazing, but they do sound both modern and good -- and the Rock Snob 101 name-dropping (from the Velvet Underground to David Bowie to the Ramones) feels right for 17-year-olds. The actors are uniformly solid. Connell is thoroughly winning as the kind of geeky charmer who would rather see a great concert than go on a date because being around a girl is far too nerve-racking. Michalka has a decent rock voice, and more than plausibly passes as the queen bee -- a role that could just as easily have gone to her co-star Hudgens, who is just too cute and appealing to pull off playing the kind of girl nobody would talk to. The main trio gets superb support from the other young actors, as well as from Kudrow, who once again proves she can make ordinary dialogue entertaining with her off-kilter delivery.
Bandslam might be missing the kind of edge a movie about rock & roll should have -- there isn't anything remotely dangerous about it. But it's undeniably earnest and honest about how much music can mean to people struggling through hard emotional times, and that's a welcome idea for kids to learn and for adults to remember.