Thursday, 9 August 2012

High School Musical (2006)

Dir. Kenny Ortega
Starring: Zac Efron, Vanessa Anne Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel

We started New Mexico with High Noon and we are ending it with High School Musical. The former is now regarded as a classic; despite its massive success I’m not sure the latter ever will. 

High School Musical (or HSM to those in the know) opens with a brief flirtation on holiday. When school hero Troy (Zac Efron) goes back to school for the new term, imagine his surprise when his holiday fling, Gabriela (Vanessa Anne Hudgens), turns up as a bookish and ever-so-slightly nerdy new student. But how will the school react to a romance that crosses the boundaries of their separate cliques?

Yes, so far, so Grease. Except, crucially, their holiday romance took place on New Year’s Eve. It is winter lovin’, not summer – ha, in your face Travolta! Layered on to this you see Troy, captain of the school basketball team, and child genius Gabriella bond over their shared love of singing. They are determined to try out for the Winter Musicál of Mrs Darbus (Alyson Reed), despite the fact that they know their friends would never understand why they are diverting their attention away from the crucial championship match / scholastic decathlon. So think of HSM as a mixture of Grease and Glee. Gleese if you will.

Yet there are some clear differences. The cliques in Glee are hostile towards the others. Here they just don’t talk. In Glee the characters all have flaws; in HSM they are all perfect. Finally Glee has a wicked and subversive wit. HSM  does not. The height of hilarity is when drama bitch princess Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) comments “We need to save our show from people who don’t know the difference between a Tony Award and Tony Hawk.” Oh please – my sides have just split. Though to give it credit there is a fairly amusing small role of one of Troy’s team mates, Zeke (Chris Warren Jr.), who reveals that he loves to bake. I’ve never before heard a musical number with the pay-off rhyme “crème brulee”. 

There are differences to Grease too. Whatever your views on that movie, you cannot deny that it is absolutely crammed from gizzard to fundament with insanely catchy songs. It really is number after number. High School Musical has maybe two memorable tunes – and I say that because they were tunes I knew prior to watching the film: Breaking Free and Together (which seems to be used as the final number in every single pantomime these days). Other than those there are only half-a-dozen other numbers in the film. And they’re pretty bland.  

However, I have always disliked Grease for its over-arching moral. Have adventures, fun, yadda yadda, but if you want to be happy and in love the woman must change absolutely everything about herself. Think back. What does Danny Zuko do to win Sandy? Eff all. What does Sandy do to win Danny? She has a complete makeover and changes her entire personality and appearance. At least High School Musical has the empowering message that you can be what you want to be in life and you can do what you want to do. If your friends and family really do care about you they will support you. You do not have to be pigeon-holed. So there can be jocks who bake, brainy kids who like hip-hop, skater dudes who play the cello and so on. Most of the songs have this as a kind of subliminal message. 

Okay, it’s schmaltzy. It is the Disney Corporation at its worse. It doesn’t have the wit of Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast. It doesn’t have the epic story of Finding Nemo or The Lion King. HSM didn’t even get a cinema release. It was just played on the Disney Channel over and over ad infinitum until an entire tweeny army had been brainwashed into submission. It has done remarkably well for a phenomenon that has no real artistic merit or – dare I say it? – lasting entertainment value. It was everywhere three-or-so years ago. But before watching it I’m not sure I recall any reference to the High School Musical franchise being made in the last six months (Twilight has stolen HSM’s clothes somewhat, with Robert Pattinson becoming the new Zac Efron). In another five years I will be amazed if High School Musical even remains on people’s cultural radar (I prepare to stand corrected!). But it is pretty innocuous. Its heart is in the right place.  

The cafeteria staff were accused of
putting too many additives in the kids' food

What have I learnt about New Mexico?
Not a lot. High School Musical is a rather generic high school movie. We don’t see much of the outside world at all. The film could be set anywhere. Other than the subtitle stating that East High is in Albuquerque, New Mexico, there are no other clues to set it in that city. There are mountains in the background and that is all I can say. 

It seems a rich area. Gabriella’s house is a sizeable property with a back garden and a balcony. Troy has his own basketball court. The school has a unified colour scheme throughout, a split-level cafeteria, tables with the school’s own logo on, and can afford 8’x20’ posters of this year’s basketball team. It has a history of producing students who progress to college on basketball scholarships. East High seems to be rolling in money. 

Can we go there?
Considering that there isn’t much in the film to tell you that it is in fact set in New Mexico (in Albuquerque
to be precise, a city most famous for being where Bugs Bunny always “shoulda toined left”) I assumed the placement of East High was because that was where the film was shot. Wrong. Befitting its squeaky-clean image HSM was shot in squeaky-clean Salt Lake City in Utah. Which does somewhat beg the question of why it is specified as being Albuquerque, New Mexico I suppose. But East High School was filmed at… East High School. The theatre was in Murray High School.
Overall Rating: 1/5

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