Judge Gordon Sullivan is unplugged. He wrote this review by hand and mailed it in.
Would you give up what you need…to get everything you want?
When Miley Cyrus' 2013 MTV Video Music Awards performance shocked the nation, there was a sense that some people were freaking out not about the performance per se, but the fact that this was Hannah Montana. Everybody knew Billy Ray and then watched his daughter grow up, so when it was time for her to step out into the spotlight herself, no one was expecting twerking like that. In contrast, Grace Unplugged is like the anti-Miley, about a girl who has a one-hit wonder father (not that different from Billy Ray) who doesn't want her to pull a Miley and wallow in the world of secular music. For a certain devout audience who likes country tinged pop, Grace Unplugged will be a heartwarming fable about family. For everyone else it'll be a tired take on the "not all that glitters is gold" brand of music industry dramas.
Facts of the Case
Grace (AJ Michalka, Super 8) is the daughter of musician-turned-preacher Johnny (James Denton, Desperate Housewives). Grace has some talent of her own, but Johnny doesn't want her getting caught up in the contemporary music machine. Grace gets the opportunity to land a record deal and heads off to Los Angeles to experience the real world and all its problems.
The music industry was an invention of the twentieth century. As sheet music gave way to gramophones and the radio, it became like any other industry in America that was long on profit and short on oversight. To put it bluntly, much of the industry is filled with profit-driven exploiters who want to maximize earnings with little care to the human cost. The story of pop music is littered with drug addicts and those driven mad by celebrity, money, and success. It's a story, then, as old as the industry: take a young, preferably idealist and/or naïve young person and throw them in the maw of this industrial beast. It goes one of two ways: either a cautionary tale about the dangers of fame, or a story about how rock 'n' roll (or whatever music is popular) saves the day, creativity triumphing over greed.
Grace Unplugged offers the gentlest of variations on the story. Instead of meeting her doom at the hands of an industry that gives us Miley Cyrus or finding salvation in her music, Grace finds Jesus and family instead. Immediately, that narrows the audience to those who want an overtly Christian message with their films. It's a formula (Christianity saves the sinner) nested in another formula (young woman swallowed by the Dream Factory). Though that's not necessarily a bad thing, it takes a sturdy film to stand under the weight of so much cliché. Sadly, nothing about Grace Unplugged gives the sense that sitting through the formulaic material is worthwhile. Acting is declamatory, as though life lessons are being imparted rather than dialogue exchanged, and the musical aspects are so-so. That leaves us with the basic story as the only thing to hang onto, and there's little of that to tempt anyone not looking for a faith-based film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
However, if you're looking for a film that's going to reaffirm faith and family, then Grace Unplugged is the one. Like many stories that have their roots in The Bible, this is the tale of a young woman learning (like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz) that what she wanted or needed was right in front of her from the beginning. If that's all you want or need from your films, then Grace Unplugged isn't a terrible way to spend 101 minutes.
Pretty much everything about Grace Unplugged is solidly unremarkable. Michalka performs her own songs, and they're sturdy (if a bit uninspired). Her style is breezy and believably likable. The rest of the cast play their roles ably enough, moving the plot smoothly forward towards the inevitable ending.
The best thing I can say about Grace Unplugged is that it's surprisingly even-handed. There's always a temptation in these kind of faith-based films to paint the entirety of secular music as a den of impossible iniquity. A film like this might be more interesting with a PG-13 or an R rating which would allow it to show the uglier side of the music industry. Instead, it offers a relatively tame view of LA debauchery. Initially this seems like a prudish distaste for the darker things in life. Eventually, Grace Unplugged acknowledges it is possible to make a decent life in the music industry without giving up one's principles or turning to Jesus. That tiny olive branch doesn't quite make up for the saccharine quality of the narrative, but it does earn the production points for trying.
The Grace Unplugged (Blu-ray) is also decent. The film's 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is clean and bright. This isn't a visually inventive film, but one whose images try to recede to let the narrative take the fore. Though not a visual feast, this transfer showcases pleasing levels of detail, colors that pop, and black levels that stay pretty deep and consistent. The DTS-HD 5.1 track, however, is even better. Dialogue is clean and clear in the front, but the track really shines during musical numbers, which showcase strong dynamic range and good separation. The overall clarity is impressive and fans of the film should be pleased.
Extras start with a set of deleted scenes that add a bit of emotional color to the performances, and also include a gag reel that shows how fun Grace Unplugged must have been to film. There's also a making-of featurette that feels a little slick but covers all the expected bases. An Ultraviolet digital copy is also included. A few standalone performances would have been nice, but the extras are fine as they are. Viewers also get a DVD and Ultraviolet Digital Copy for their troubles.
Those looking for an above-average faith-based film will find some solace in Grace Unplugged. In 2014, as millions of parents are trying to explain the too-adult behavior of Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber to their kids, this will no doubt provide a fine way of easing the discussion. For everyone else, this is a by-the-numbers look at the effects of a money driven industry on the idealistic, with a slight Christian twist.
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