From choreographing Dirty Dancing and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to helming Newsies, Hocus Pocus, High School Musical, and the Descendants franchise, choreographer-turned-director Kenny Ortega has spent the past three decades with his finger on the pulse of teen/tween entertainment. And he continues that hot streak as the executive producer and frequent director of Julie And The Phantoms, Netflix’s charming new series about a high school musical prodigy and the ghostly boy band that helps her find her confidence. Julie And The Phantoms blends the lighthearted comedic tone of a Disney Channel original movie with the romantic fantasy world-building of Twilight and a welcome dose of Gen Z sensitivity. And with one or two toe-tapping original musical numbers per episode, it’s the perfect back-to-school gift for music-loving tweens and their families.
Adapted from a 2011 Brazilian show called Julie E Os Fantasmas, Julie And The Phantoms centers on 15-year-old Julie (Madison Reyes), a gifted singer-songwriter who’s lost her love for music since her mom died a year ago. But when she plays an old CD she finds in her mom’s music studio, she accidentally awakens the ghosts of Sunset Curve, a teen band on the cusp of making it big before they died of hot-dog-related food poisoning in 1995. Confident lead singer-guitarist Luke (Charles Gillespie), goofy bassist Reggie (Adventure Time’s Jeremy Shada), and sensitive drummer Alex (Owen Patrick Joyner) are shocked to discover they’ve been dead for 25 years. But that’s soon replaced by an exciting afterlife discovery: In addition to being able to talk to Julie all the time, they become audible (and sometimes visible) to the rest of the world when they play music. All of a sudden, they’ve got an unusual second chance to make it big with a talented new lead singer at their center.
The first two episodes of the nine-episode series function as a too-slow and earnest pilot for a series that gets a whole lot zippier once Julie finally starts performing with her ghostly backup band (who she improbably passes off as Swedish holograms). Sunset Curve mix the pop punk sound of Jimmy Eat World with the pretty boy aesthetics of The Backstreet Boys, though, in practice, there’s very little about them that feels authentically ’90s—a fact that almost certainly won’t bother a middle school audience born well after the decade ended. Instead, the series finds the commonality between Gen Z fashion and ’90s aesthetics while giving Julie and her Phantoms the soaring pop sound of Alessia Cara by way of One Direction. The show springs to life in its impressively catchy musical numbers (courtesy of regular Disney Channel songwriter David Lawrence), which range from rousing onstage concerts to elaborate fantasy sequences that pay homage Ortega’s past work.
Unlike Netflix’s elevated tween hit The Baby-Sitter’s Club, Julie And The Phantoms has a broad comedic sheen that will limit its appeal to those who don’t mind a healthy dose of Disney Channel-esque gloss. Still, as in Ortega’s High School Musical franchise, the game young cast brings a level of self-awareness that winks at the material without undermining it. And like an artist finding their voice, Julie And The Phantoms grows stronger as it goes along, even locking into some moving ideas about grief and loss in its penultimate episode, “Unsaid Emily.”
Julie And The Phantoms also goes surprisingly deep on its fantasy world-building. Creators and showrunners Dan Cross and Dave Hoge (Nickelodeon’s The Thundermans and Disney XD’s Pair Of Kings) spend quite a bit of time exploring how ghosts interact with the corporeal world, which lends a unique genre flair to the series. Laidback skateboarding ghost Willie (Descendants’ Booboo Stewart) becomes the band’s guide to the world of spirits secretly living alongside “lifers” in L.A. That includes a ghostly nightclub run by menacing turn-of-the-century magician Caleb Covington (musical vet Cheyenne Jackson), which allows Julie And The Phantoms to deliver some big Broadway-style production numbers and a stakes-raising plot device.
Willie also develops an immediate spark with Alex, an openly gay character who feels like the culmination of years of subtextual queerness in Ortega’s work. Alex’s sexuality is treated with refreshing casualness by his close-knit bandmates, and the show even offers one particularly inspired subversion of “no homo” humor. Along with Julie’s crush on Luke, Alex’s burgeoning connection with Willie is one of the major romantic through-lines of the season. It’s lovely to see not just a gay character, but a gay romance placed center stage in a G-rated tween show.
If anything, Julie And The Phantoms packs a little too much into its debut season. In addition to the central ghost band premise, Julie gets a meddling little brother, an overprotective aunt, a sensitive dad, a loyal best friend, a high school crush, and a one-note mean girl enemy. But the exuberant young cast keeps the overstuffed series afloat. Reyes—a real-life 15-year-old in her first onscreen role—is a phenomenal find with soaring vocals and an impressive ability to handle both comedy and drama. And she gets a great foil in Jadah Marie as Julie’s stylish, precocious bestie. For their part, Gillespie, Shada, and Joyner develop delightful brotherly chemistry as three best friends bound together for all eternity. If they’re each just a touch too desperate to be the next Zac Efron, it lends to the feeling of their out-of-time ’90s boy band demeanor.
Across its briskly paced, heavily serialized first season, Julie And The Phantoms delivers such good-natured, high-octane charms that it’s hard not to enjoy the ride, even during its more uneven moments. The series recaptures the earnest, music-filled appeal of the High School Musical franchise far better than the sequel series Disney+ released last year. And what Julie And The Phantoms lacks in depth, it makes up for with an endearing cast and endlessly catchy pop tunes. Just be prepared to get a lot of new songs stuck in your head.