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Camp Rock

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When I was a tweenager — and when I was a teenager, for that matter — the entertainment targeted to my demographic was largely forbidden to me. Of course I became obsessed with it. Years of furtively devouring Tiger Beat at friends' houses and and pretending I'd seen The Empire Strikes Back took a heavy toll. Now that I have kids of my own and Radio Disney is blasting at every kid-oriented public venue they visit, I find myself unable to resist the glossy sheen of the marketing, the unthreatening poppiness of the music, the shaggy smolder of the designated idol du jour. All my unrequited yearning to hang Shaun Cassidy pictures on my wall and blast Andy Gibb from the stereo bubblest to the surface. I want to be 10 again and consume whatever the Disney corporation tells me to.

So I was actually hoping for another High School Musical from this summer's blatant attempt to create another High School Musical. Because for all its ridiculous overexposure since, HSM was a pretty good gateway drug for two of my favorite things: musicals and ensemble performance. Director Kenny Ortega is a choreographer, and even if his style isn't yours, he knows what a musical should be — people breaking into song and dance at the drop of a hat — and he knows how to film it, with big sweeping camera moves and a sense of scope and scale. And in Zac Efron, the project had a star who could sell the joy and energy of performance (as he displayed in his turn in Hairspray last year). In short, HSM was better than such a prepackaged product had any right to be, and it exposed millions of kids to the exuberance that the musical genre has to offer.

If I had taken a look at the people behind Camp Rock, I would have known not to get my hopes up. Nothing against the Jonas Brothers, who fit in very well with the stable of Radio Disney stars and make tuneful music with a beat the kids can dance to. I'm talking about Matthew Diamond, TV journeyman director, and Karin Gist and Regina Hicks, TV journeywoman writers. Nothing against TV — I love TV. But Camp Rock is TV in the worst way — small in concept, small in execution. Where is the sense of expansiveness, the big emotions and big setpieces that musicals can provide? It's the twenty-first century equivalent of a quickie movie vehicle for Herman's Hermits; all product placement, no passion. This movie needed movie people — and musical people — making the decisions.

The plot is conventional as all get-out, sure, but that's not a knock in and of itself — conventions are part of the personal-time-machine charm of kiddie entertainment. Demi Lovato is an aspiring singer-songwriter who gets a chance to go to Camp Rock when her mom is hired to cater. Joe Jonas is the bad boy in a pop trio who gets assigned to teach classes at his alma mater — coincidentally, also Camp Rock! — to get some good PR. Trying to fit in with the rich kids at camp, Lovato accepts a position as backup singer with the local diva, Meaghan Jette Martin, and lies about her parents' connections in the music biz. She connects with Jonas who is writing some songs to take his band, Connect 3, in a more personal direction. But Martin sabotages her chances of catching Jonas' eye in the big camp-ending competition, Final Jam, by exposing her exaggerations and framing her for stealing. Will Lovato get to perform and show everyone her talent?

Strangely enough, one of the problems with this premise is that all the musical numbers are motivated by the setting — they're supposed to be performances at the camp. The suspension of disbelief essential to the genre, in which intense experiences and feelings spill over into music and dance, and infect everyone in the immediate vicinity, never happens. That represents a pulling-back from the musical genre itself, a lack of the trust needed to risk its cheesiness. Such caution means that pulling-out-the-stops performances are going to be difficult to achieve. Yet another reason why the whole affair seems so petty, so ephemeral, so easily dismissed.

I have no doubt that the JoBro fangirls are going to eat it up. But it's not going to produce any theater geeks or musical lovers … or any rock fans either (for all the campers carrying around guitar cases, Final Jam seems to be all about vocal frontman skills). And if these productions aren't motivated by any love for their ostensible subjects, then they're just loss leaders for the merchandising that's already all over your local Target. I've always believed that worthwhile entertainment, even art, can come out of crassly commercial settings. Camp Rock makes me feel like a fool for my never-had-it nostalgia and my recapture-the-dream hopes.

Grade: D+

Stray observations:

- The one number with a little fire is "Start The Party, in which Jonas teaches a hiphop routine to a group of students who catch on rather too quickly. The camera moves around the dancers, and the call-and-response between Jonas and the campers has some energy. Watch it for what could have been.

- Camp director Daniel Fathers actually says to his teen charges, "if the class is a-rockin', I'm glad I came a-knockin'!" This makes me profoundly uncomfortable.

- There is an obligatory food fight scene. However, they missed the obligatory scene where campers flip over each other's canoes. In fact, they missed the canoes entirely. Why would Camp Rock be out in the woods on a lake if they're not going to canoe?

- ABC is showing the movie in HD tomorrow night, but I had to watch it tonight on the Disney (non-HD) Channel to get this post up. Too bad, because I was much more interested in looking at the fake band posters on the cabin walls than watching the actors.

- Joe, when you reveal your big personal song to Demi out on the dock with your guitar, how do you do that thing where you sing harmony with yourself?

- Because I was hopelessly uncool and behind on all the teen trends, I tended to claim the underappreciated parts of the pop phenomena. I proclaimed that I liked Parker Stevenson rather than Shaun Cassidy, Larry Wilcox rather than Erik Estrada. (This week's Film That Time Forgot convinces me I made the right choice.) So if I were a teenybopper Jonas Brothers fan, I'd have pics of Nick on my wall instead of heartthrob Joe. This probably explains the entire post above.

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