Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky used to perform in elementary school musicals. No, really. But that still didn't make him cool.
Our reviews of High School Musical (Blu-Ray) (published February 17th, 2009), High School Musical: The Concert (published June 25th, 2007), and High School Musical: Two-Disc Remix Edition (published January 3rd, 2007) are also available.
"But inside I am stirring/Something strange is occurring/It's a secret I need to share"—Lyrics from "Stick to the Status Quo"
If you are between the ages of eight and fourteen, a member of that new and powerful demographic known as the "tween set," you can probably turn back now. You already know all about this movie.
Facts of the Case
If there ever was a textbook definition of a meet-cute, it is this one: basketball star Troy (Zac Efron) and shy math whiz Gabriella (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) find perfect harmony singing compulsory karaoke one night at a party. But their sparks are almost snuffed out, as their cliques at East High School demand they stay apart. Troy's basketball buddies, including his best friend Chad (Corbin Bleu) and pushy coach/father (Bart Johnson), need him to keep his head in the game for the upcoming championship. Gabriella's best friend Taylor (Monique Coleman) only wants Gabriella to focus on the scholastic decathlon. Teen drama queens Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) and Ryan (Lucas Grabeel) want the two budding lovebirds out of the way before the big school musical. Can music bring everyone together for a happy ending?
This is the Disney Channel. What do you think?
I don't think I have to tell you the real reason people dance in musicals. Sex. Well, more accurately, the lack of sex. Dancing, like so many other things theatrical (like say, when a couple both light up cigarettes in an old movie), is code for sexual desire. If you can't get any—or at least can't show any on screen—you dance. (Except in John Woo movies, where violence substitutes for the freedom of dancing.)
I probably should not be reminding you of this while you watch High School Musical, Disney's surprise cable blockbuster. The film had modest ambitions when it premiered: director Kenny Ortega, who helmed the disjointed Newsies and choreographed Dirty Dancing (whose title should convince you of my point above) finally wanted to get back to the genre he loved most. For the last few years, since the failure of Newsies, Ortega has been stuck mostly directing Disney Channel fare for the tween set: harmless, peppy, upbeat shows for your young person with disposable income. At first glance, High School Musical, whose title couldn't be more generic if it tried, looks to be just another one of those pieces of Disney Channel filler.
In keeping with its generic title, the film features a fairly generic plot. Mismatched couple spends the movie avoiding one another. Friends keep them apart; circumstances force them to compete. In the last act, all is resolved. Boy meets girl; boy and girl fight; boy and girl get together. You can map out the plot points blindfolded. The leads themselves are appealing in a squeaky clean, harmlessly generic way too. They are all, well, cute. There is a cute nice boy (Troy), a cute bad boy (Chad), and a cute metrosexual boy (Ryan). Over on the other side, well, you know. There is the bubbly blonde (Sharpay), the sassy black girl (Taylor), and of course, the shy but smoky brunette in the lead (Gabriella). Oh, and add the pretty girl who tries to look like a boy (Kelsi, played by Olesya Rulin), so that she can unleash herself by the end of the movie. All the requisite cliques are represented: athletes, nerds, artistes—well, except for the stoners, who get only a couple of lines. Look for High School Musical 2: Freak and Geek Rock coming soon to cable, featuring the hit single, "Dude, I…Really…Whatever…Dude!"
The performers mostly come from Disney's stable of television actors, with the standard ethnic balance but no overt cultural difference. Only a brief opening scene in Gabriella's Hispanic household hints at anything other than a whitebread suburban life for all these kids, whatever their skin color. Zac Efron is somewhat bland as Troy; I'm guessing Disney did not want an overly masculine jock character to avoid scaring the girls. Vanessa Anne Hudgens, in spite of her age, has a natural smolder that the film tries to suppress to little avail. The rest of the cast members do what they have to do: look cute, deliver the funny, and boogie on cue.
And yes, the dancing in High School Musical is the ultimate substitute for sex. Troy and Gabriella moon over a karaoke microphone. Narcissistic Sharpay and Ryan avoid meaningful relationships with anyone else in school by focusing entirely on show biz. (In fact, the first time I saw the movie on television, I came in about halfway through and thought Sharpay and Ryan were supposed to be lovers rather than siblings.) Because everybody is jailbait, relationships at the film's climax are not solved with kissing—but with an even more ferocious dance explosion.
Sexuality is so sublimated in the film that even the flirtations come across as more innocent than they sound on paper. When Gabriella muses to Troy, "When I was singing like you, I felt like a girl," you can see her almost longing to escape the trap of a Disney Channel world where gender is just costuming. Troy responds, "You looked like one too." But the romantic longing is over quickly. After all, we wouldn't want to encourage these kids to feel things they aren't allowed to feel. So we need another musical number.
One thing about the musical numbers is their sense of community. None of them involve characters pairing off together at the expense of the group. Whenever it appears that a couple might separate from the group, producing a little sexual tension, they are pulled back in by some team choreography. Individuality in the film is always bound by group cohesion. The key number here is "Stick to the Status Quo," in which characters reveal their secret and private desires, all of which border on innuendo: a jock admits that he likes baking "apple pan dowdy," a fat girl likes to "pop and lock." Individual voices are pulled into the group. And yes, although the film's climax, as you expect, allows everyone to express their own desires, the mass choreography of the final number suggests that, even if you have your own personal desires, the needs of the Wildcats as a group come first. How high school. Even Troy and Gabriella's relationship is mediated by a sort of chaperone: the mousy composer Kelsi (who, of course, substitutes songwriting for dating).
Yet, in spite of the fact that the movie relies more on formulas than an East High chemistry textbook, it is damn appealing. While the opening ballad ("What I've Been Looking For") is a little soft, the marching drive of many of the numbers, starting with the syncopated basketball song ("Get'cha Head in the Game"), have plenty of hook. Director Ortega knows how to shoot and edit dancers, so while the pace lags a little during the plot-driven sequences, the film comes alive when the beats kick in. When I first caught this on television, my cynicism evaporated quickly during the songs. If I seem to spend a lot of time in this review tearing the film down as an adult looking at the starry-eyed world of tweens, my experience of actually watching the film—or at least the musical numbers—is quite different. Like most successful musicals, High School Musicals is a tactile experience. You find yourself tapping to the music, humming along with the lyrics, wishing you could live in such a cute and chipper world. You have fun.
OK, maybe that is the whole business in a nutshell. The musical numbers in High School Musical are fun. The cast is appealing. The plot is disposable but not distracting. There is nothing here that parents should fear if they buy this DVD for their tweens. Well, you probably already bought this for your tweens, right? And the soundtrack CD. And the Wildcat sweatsuit. And your kids' school is considering buying performance rights to put on a stage version (you can order it today from Disney's Broadway division). You can't escape it.
The fan base for High School Musical has become cult. If you are not already converted to the Church of East High, you may underestimate the appeal of this movie among the tween set. (I am expecting a few strongly worded emails from thirteen year old girls angry at my lack of blind enthusiasm for the movie.) When I visited Disney's Virtual Magic Kingdom online community (yeah yeah, I'm a geek), I was stunned to see how many players dressed as characters from the movie, talked about the movie, pretended to visit places from the movie, and generally showed a collective desire to live in High School Musical's friendly world.
I cannot say that I blame them. My high school never had spontaneous outbursts of song. I doubt yours did either. (Editor's Note: Mine did, but, umm, never mind…) In fact, it might be said that the target audience for this movie, that often-mentioned tween set, looks to High School Musical for a vision of what their future experience in high school might be like. This is high school as utopia, a mysterious, far-off land coming in a few years that will bring joy, happiness, fulfillment, and most of all maturity (which means love and popularity) to those gangly and awkward young people who no longer see themselves as children, but cannot yet claim to be grown-up. Perhaps this is why High School Musical has caught on far more successfully than any other Disney Channel tween program: it shows an ideal life in the future, rather than (like in most other Disney Channel tween fare) idealized lives of kids in the present—lives the audience can never live. But maybe, just maybe, next year you might get to go to East High. And if not next year, maybe the year after that.
Disney rushed out this "Encore Edition" DVD for High School Musical quickly on the heels of the movie's television premiere in order to cash in on the Wildcat craze as quickly as possible. The subtitle feature displays the song lyrics in karaoke style, so you and your friends can sing along. After all, if it is good enough for Zac Efron (who apparently did not do most of his own singing), it should be good enough for you too. There is a pair of music videos, one for a pretty limp new song and the other a clip fest with the finale song. The cast is quite articulate and professional during the making-of featurette, and they all credit Kenny Ortega with holding the film together. I can buy that: the finished film is more polished and interesting than the usual Disney Channel fare, and that does seem due to the director's experience with and love for the musical genre. In fact, Ortega steps forward during a brief featurette to show you one of the rehearsals for a salsa-flavored dance, although you really are not likely to learn much from such a short piece. During the commercial breaks on the Disney Channel broadcast I saw, the cast more effectively taught the "Wildcat cheer." I am surprised that this segment was not included on the disc, although Disney is probably saving it for a future DVD release of the "Super Special Revival Edition for Your Kids Who Were Too Young for the Target Demographic Last Time." Yes, the smell of franchise is in the air.
I liked High School Musical. That's pretty much all there is to it. For all my snarky comments above, I have to admit that Kenny Ortega's comeback film won me over. I won't be dressing up like a Wildcat for Halloween, but I can see why the target audience loves this movie so much. If you have kids, sit down with them and enjoy an hour and a half of toe-tapping fun. They might think you are cool—for about five minutes.
No detention here. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Karaoke Style Subtitles
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