Move over American Idol. Move over Fame.
Over the past three years, the movie musical has made a remarkable comeback, even after being dismissed as a "dead genre." Moulin Rouge! and Chicago were the most celebrated, but lost in the background is Camp, a lively and spunky throwback to Fame and many other ensemble musicals.
After being unfairly overlooked by major critics, Camp makes its way onto DVD courtesy of MGM Home Entertainment. This is the type of film that DVD was made for.
Facts of the Case
It's summer time and a group of talented youngsters who are obsessed with theater attend camp at Camp Ovation, a training ground for young talent.
Among the characters we'll meet this summer at Camp Ovation:
• Vlad (Daniel Letterle), a self proclaimed "attention junkie" who manages to charm a few too many people than he should
• Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat), a Plain Jane who is actually a beauty waiting to burst out from her self-inflicted cocoon
• Michael (Robin De Jesus), a teenage drag queen who is alienated from his parents
• Jenna (Tiffany Taylor), a young girl whose weight problems lead her father to have her jaw wired shut for the entire summer.
• Jill (Alana Allen), a stuck-up bitch-in-training who treats her roommate with the same respect as a patch of dirt
• Fritzi (Anna Kendrick), Jill's roommate who eventually decides to grab the spotlight for herself
• Bert Hanley (Don Dixon), a composer who had one huge success but has spent the years since hitting the bottle.
Camp is the most exciting new musical to surface in recent years. Unlike the overpraised Moulin Rouge! and Chicago, writer/co-producer/director Todd Graff doesn't rely on over stylized visuals to make his basic story work. His film relies on ensemble acting and great musical set pieces to succeed. Graff based his film on his real life experiences at Stagedoor Manor (in which this film was shot). Stagedoor Manor is a drama camp, located in New York, which turned out such talent as Robert Downey Jr, Natalie Portman, and Mandy Moore, to name a few. It's that ring of truth that makes the film feel authentic, not Hollywoodized as many musicals (and films) tend to do. Camp is not quite a comedy, even though there are hilarious moments (such as Vlad's unfortunate dilemma toward the end of the film). It is not quite a drama, despite tackling such issues as alienation and youth homosexuality. It is a careful balance of both elements as well as one of the most exhilarating musicals I've ever seen.
Some will no doubt compare Graff's film to Fame, Alan Parker's 1980 classic. While in the barest details Camp is reminiscent to the Parker film, it is actually a more realized and accomplished film, particularly with the development of the more sober minded material.
Graff films the performances very simply, with few gimmicks. His approach works wonders, as the viewer can concentrate on the performance rather than the camerawork and tricks used in traditional musicals. Despite the stripped down approach, the numbers have energy and style that the overbaked musicals lack.
Graff held a nationwide talent search, looking for unknowns to play his well-drawn characters. Again, the correct approach, as stars would have distracted from the material. He has assembled a good cast, all of whom give good performances in sometimes difficult material. Of the newcomers, Tiffany Taylor has the most promise for a musical career. She has a magnificent voice, showcased in the opening and climatic numbers. Joanna Chilcoat has potential as a dramatic actress. She has moments that are so well acted and true to the material that there is little she cannot have, if only some casting director out there would stop offering every female role to the Nicole Kidmans of the world. The most difficult performance in the picture is Don Dixon's, who must make a cantankerous, bitter drunk sympathetic and redeemable.
My only problem with Camp is with the film's ending, which feels more tacked on than organic. The closing musical number, a performance of Todd Rundgren's "The Want of a Nail," is magnificent, but the closing scenes at the lake feel rushed, as if to put a smiley face on the film even after all the turmoil. I like happy endings, but not when they feel disjointed and inorganic. Still, there is enough good in Camp to make me recommend it.
MGM presents Camp in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. It's a decent transfer that could be better. Night scenes often have heavy, sometimes bluish, grain, a sign of poor compression. Day scenes look beautiful, nearly perfect in some instances. Colors look nice and lush, especially for a low budget effort. There is some light edge enhancement during some musical numbers, but nothing that will cause discomfort or major problems with your viewing experience. I could swear that there are some scenes that switch from that glossy look of celluloid to the sterile ness of straightforward digital video. The end credits do not reveal anything about the process (they are far too small for a TV smaller than 32 inches, and even in the bigger set you will be straining your eyes to read them) used for the photography, but judging from the signs, it appears to be a DV production that was transferred to film.
Audio is a superb Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix. Musicals are supposed to shine in the audio department, and this transfer is astonishing in its clarity and detail. The songs come across loud and stunningly rich. Dialogue is very easy to comprehend, which is always a pleasure. There are moments so clean and clear that made me feel I was actually in the camp audience. Great job here, MGM!
MGM has even given us a few extras, which pleased me. First up is a 17-minute making of featurette. Writer/co-producer/director Todd Graff is featured along with members of the cast and crew. Graff discusses how he came up with the concept and gives lots of details about the production. It's a shame he did not record a commentary track for the film itself. I would have liked to hear more details.
Three deleted scenes appear, none of which would have made the film better than it already is. They are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. Two extended numbers are great set pieces, but Graff was right in making the cuts when necessary; presenting them at this length would have disrupted the flow of the film.
A special bonus cast performance is featured here. Taped live during the L.A. Film Festival, an impromptu performance of the tune "How Shall I See You Through My Tears" is a perfect complement to the film itself.
The original theatrical trailer, in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, wraps up the extra content included on this disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The most annoying aspect of this disc is the preview section. Coming after the MGM DVD logo, trailers for Uptown Girls and Pieces of April play before the main menu appears on screen. You cannot skip directly to the menu, but are forced to forward through them. It is time consuming and very annoying. MGM has done it on several new releases and I hope they cease this practice soon. Leave the preview trailers for the extras section.
Camp is a wonderful film, but the $29.98 retail price is just too steep for a film that doesn't have wide appeal to begin with. (That's not a knock at the film or filmmakers, but rather the audiences that embrace slick Hollywood junk.) Definitely rent this film, though. You'll be entertained and thrilled at the same time.
I've put this camp through enough paces for now. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Making of Featurette
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