Director Todd Graff makes movies with music, as opposed to movie musicals. Note the distinction -- rather than allowing his characters to spontaneously break into song, Graff tells stories in which music is used as a more natural part of the storytelling.
"It's hard to write a really good, old-fashioned musical," said Graff, who shares writing credit on his latest film, "Bandslam," which opens Aug. 14, with Josh A. Cagan. "And that's why I think there are so few of them written anymore, and people tend to keep revising and remaking old ones. I think songs that rise naturally out of the situation -- like they're in a band, so they'll rehearse and perform -- are easier to make work and feel organic, instead of they're singing because they're in love. That I find harder to justify and not make silly."
"Bandslam" follows a nerdy high schooler (Gaelan Connell) who dreams of becoming a rock band manager, so he pushes a local group into a talent competition. This puts him squarely between a bad-girl former cheerleader (Aly Michalka, from "Aly & AJ") and an awkward outsider ("High School Musical's" Vanessa Hudgens), who each vie for his affection and a spot in the band.
Graff's previous film, "Camp," featured a cast of unknowns in telling its story of a musical theater summer camp. With "Bandslam," he has two teen sensations in his cast with Michalka and Hudgens. Yet, rather than the slick Radio Disney pop that his stars might be more readily associated with, Graff has his youthful characters extol enthusiasm for earlier musical figures such as David Bowie and Patti Smith, as well as more recent pedigreed acts such as Arcade Fire and Wilco.
"It's really all the stuff that I'm into," Graff said of the musical influences in the film, "much more than I think kids that age would necessarily be into. We've had some test screenings, and kids didn't even seem to pretend to know necessarily even who Bowie was, but they got that there was something cool about it they were responding to."
Still, it's something of a shock to see these youngsters in the film stop what they're doing to discuss the relative merits of the albums of the Velvet Underground or make a pilgrimage to the site of landmark punk rock nightclub CBGB.
"I know, it's demented," admitted Graff of the cultural incongruities that underlie the film. "Every once in a while on set I would think to myself, I can't believe we got away with this. I always thought if it only sent one kid to listen to a Velvet Underground record, it would be worth it to me."