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Is this really the last chance to get it right?

November 19th, 2008

I should have done this a few days ago, capsule but here goes.

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I feel like an alcoholic at the beginning of a twelve-step meeting, but I went to see High School Musical 3 last weekend. To say that I was dragged there not of my own volition is a half-truth at best; having Netflixed the first HSM last week, I was simultaneously horrified and intrigued, and enough of the latter to make it worth the $10 to see how the new one stacks up. Although the original bore all the hallmarks of a made-for-Disney-Channel movie, it managed to get more things right than it deserved (and I’m not just talking about Efron’s boyish charm) and so my enjoyment of the film managed to tread that dangerous line between ironic and genuine. I’m not sure I can say the same for HSM 3.

The setting is again Albequerque, NM, and the movie begins with the trademark East High Wildcats in the middle of a fast-paced championship-basketball-game-cum-musical-number, as the twinkish Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) and Chad Danforth (Corbin Bleu, another alumnus of my high school) sweat their life away and grimace as much as possible. The end of the game thankfully also ends the direct involvement of basketball in the plot (further separating it from the first, where it played a major role in the primary conflict) although to take it’s place is the well-worn trope of college applications and the accompanying separation anxiety. This in turn brings into play such hilarious plot points as Juilliard recruiters doleing out scholarships like Halloween candy and an early-decision honor’s program at Stanford that yanks students out of their last semester of high school to come to the campus to do nothing more than ride bicycles, wear flowy skirts, and have adult-sounding cell phone conversations with their friends back home (not to mention forcing their parents to come with them and sell their house in I’llbequirky) It’s decided that the spring musiCALE will be about the students’ own lives at East High, which causes some musical confusion I’ll discuss later. Problems arise even without the help of show-stealing meddlesome diva Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale), and as the show seems doomed to failure the phoenix rises clumsily from the ashes on opening night, and all are satisfied. I’m glossing over the relationship troubles of Troy and Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens), partly because it’s more than a little hackneyed and partly because it gets in the way of my fantasies. There’s also more focus on Troy’s inner conflict between theatre and basketball (is this really such a big deal?) and by extension his conflict with his father’s desires and his own.

Now to preface my opinions: one of the things which I think was a failure of the first movie was never seeing the show-within-the-show. In my experience this is always the best part: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Babes in Arms, Singing in the Rain (not counting the stupid treadmill dream sequence), the Producers….not to mention Noises Off or Waiting for Guffman! Musicals within musicals are well-enough trodden ground (Kiss Me, Kate or the musical of The Producers) and it’s easy to disambiguate the impromptu singing and the “scripted” singing of the inner show. Cabaret is another good example of how these two can interact and comment on each other while still remaining fairly distinct.

HSM3, however, totally fucked with this in an unacceptable way. Some of the numbers started in “RL” and then transitioned into a rehearsal of the musical, or made their way into the musical later. (this reminded me of the end of Singing in the Rain: how preposterous was it that Velma and the orchestra knew that song that Don sang to himself on the rainy street weeks earlier? It just doesn’t add up….) And just when I thought I’d figured it out, Efron and Bleu broke into their choreographed machismo number “The Boys are Back” (homoerotic does not even BEGIN to describe it….) and when the dancers came in from the wings and the set instantly lost all trapping of reality, I imagined we were now in the rehearsal of this number for the show. Except we weren’t. This might have been an attempt at whimsey, but it left me even more confused.

I was pleasantly surprised with the plot: again, I didn’t see HSM2, but 3 was definitely a step up from the first one, which was a confused muddling of clichés hastily stitched together with middling musical numbers. It managed to surprise me a few times (in a good way) and I continued to enjoy the outrageously one-dimensional characters, despite the fact that they tried to take the two characters that might have been gay (Ryan, the snazzily-dressed choreographer, and Kelsey, the brooding composer of the shows) and threw them together to make us try and believe that everything was on the up-and-up. (I mean, they share a love of terrible hats, but that’s not enough to overcome their obvious sexual proclivities) I also completely loathed Troy’s rage aria, not only because it was so poorly acted, but the rain of CG basketballs would not even have passed muster in 1994. Oh, and did I mention that the recipients of the Juilliard scholarships (which were being awarded based on the applicants’ performances in the musical) were announced during the musical? What?? The climax at actual graduation (not fake graduation during the musical, when the awards were announced) was decidedly anti-climatic and probably the worst ensemble number in the movie.

Knowing that I went to an arts-oriented public high school, you might think these types of movies make me nostalgic. I haven’t seen Fame, but Camp is another good example of a movie that supposedly sums up my high school experience, but it doesn’t. And that’s just it: no one went to East High. It is at once our best and worst memories of the high school experience, as defined so eloquently then and since more by society and its depiction in the media than by our actual surroundings. High school is about learning to cope with the massively complex realities of life which had been theretofore suppressed or ignored, and every movie, book, play, or TV show set in high school attempts to reconcile one aspect of this reality through the lens of what we perceive as a culturally shared experience. (Even though there were no jocks at my high school  – there were no sports – the idiom is one which I understand) I thought the first movie had a direct (and horrificly transparent) message: it’s OK to dabble in various already-socially-acceptable forms of expression, but they still (even in a plurality) define who and what you are. I’m not sure that HSM3 was so worried about continuing or updating this message, but it leave me questioning how many decisions I’ve made and how many have been made for me.

So can I reccommend HSM 3? Not completely, but don’t deny yourself the hilarity of at least renting this fantastic trio of films. Don’t watch them alone, as you might find yourself enjoying them at face value. Rather, if you can’t go to a theater and sit behind nine screaming girls while simultaneously laughing at the movie and them, as we did, see it with a few friends and some drinks, and feel free to discuss it openly amongst yourselves – you will not be talking over gripping or important dialogue.

And after you’ve seen them, head over to www.southparkstudios.com and see last week’s episode “Elementary School Musical.” Genius.


One Response to “Is this really the last chance to get it right?”

  1. enabler on November 19, 2008 6:22 pm

    time to netflix #2. ryan gets a solo! class relations! summer time!

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