FILM REVIEW ***
Somewhere Closer Than Over the Rainbow
Campy Film Cliched But Soundtrack WorthwhileBy Fred Choi
Written and Directed by Todd Graff
Starring Daniel Letterle, Joanna Chilcoat, Robin de Jesus
Camp Ovation, based on a real drama camp in upstate New York, is a haven for adolescents who’d rather be Broadway babies than basketball stars and who idolize Stephen Sondheim instead of Britney Spears. Although Camp’s central story feels like just another of its many subplots, it is crammed so full of colorful characters and knockout performances that even if you don’t know Audra McDonald from Ronald McDonald you’ll still find yourself enjoying the spectacle despite the lack of emotional involvement.
The main story of Camp, such that it is, concerns the cross-dressing Michael (Robin de Jesus), a straight (gasp!) pretty-boy Vlad (Daniel Letterle), and his coterie of summer flings, including the plain but generically nice Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat). Cliched subplots include a bitchy diva and her mousy sidekick; an apathetic, alcoholic director; and a girl whose parents have wired her jaw shut so that she’ll lose weight.
Every once in a while, due more to random chance than actual planning, no doubt, the film manages to move in an interesting direction, but then just as quickly slips back into its usual after-school television special banality. Scenes such as the conversation in which Vlad asks why Michael wore a dress to his prom suggest opportunities for character development, but wind up at a dead end.
The entire ensemble of newcomers act passably well in their paper-thin roles, but the movie is at its best in its occasional snappy one-liners (Vlad: “Have you ever experimented with heterosexuality?” Michael: “What? Sleep with a straight guy?”) and its fantastic, oftentimes absurdly precocious musical numbers. The latter make up the real reason you should see this film. There’s something uniquely moving -- not to mention wonderfully funny -- about a 15-year-old girl masterfully translating the bitterness of youth into the role of a thrice-divorced world-weary woman or of a freckled, rosy-cheeked white girl donning a black beehive wig to channel the spirit of Jennifer Holiday. It’s too bad the rest of the film is marred by amateurish attempts at dialogue and a storyline.
Like the movie itself, the soundtrack to Camp is a curious mix, but it ends up succeeding much more successfully. The first half includes full versions of songs performed in the movie (the hilarious song from Dreamgirls is, however, unfortunately absent). The scenes enacted by the teens at the camp are generally from unfamiliar shows that feature more popular-based music, perhaps in deference to teenagers and the average audience members’ preference for the likes of Elton John and Rent, rather than My Fair Lady or Oklahoma!
The songs penned specifically for the movie or drawn from other sources have a similar feel, drawing from folk and gospel. It was a supremely wasted opportunity that the talents of the virtuosic Stephen Trask, the songwriter of the memorable tunes from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, were kept only to the instrumental score, none of which was included on the soundtrack. Still, the new songs, while saccharine, shallow, and at times incoherent in their meandering, are generally pleasing.
The second half of the soundtrack includes songs from such popular acts as The Replacements and Oasis as well as more obscure bands like Snow Patrol, which were used as background music during the movie. Viewers of the movie would be hard-pressed to recall which song went with which scene, and diehard musical fans may turn their noses up at these tracks. But as the character Vlad points out, there’s more to music than just music written twenty-plus years ago, and for those willing to be open-minded, these songs fit surprisingly well with the tone of the songs performed by the cast: acoustic, summery pop.
For those who prefer belting to hiking, the soundtrack of Camp captures the energy and fun of the movie’s look at an adolescent summer which should tide you over until you can watch the DVD, fast-forward button at the ready so you can skip to the good stuff -- the songs.