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Your January Random Movie Club Results Are In!

Tagline: A Comedy About Drama

Preshow Entertainment: AMERICA SINGS!, Griffin Dunne on The Tonight Show (1985)


It's really quiet. The camp is deserted. The lake is still, ominous. Teens are making out, some even going round the bases. Then - that music. That signature breathy music. An axe is being dragged on the jagged ground while the teens remain happily oblivious in their world of sin, and...ooops...that's Crystal Lake. This is Camp Ovation, where the axe is swapped out for the acts. This...is a performing arts camp.

The irony behind CAMP, a 2003 movie about said performing arts summer camp, is that the actors are playing actors, and neither incarnation are very good at acting. Performances are weak, awkward and self-conscious, all which reveal the players' inexperience. Yet in spite of, or because of this, CAMP flies its flag high. In an atmosphere of pap like CAMP ROCK and the HIGH SCHOOL MUSICALS, CAMP is a small breath of fresh air, though it's unfortunately not enough to save anyone's life.

The story takes place at Camp Ovation, a movie version of the actual Stagedoor Manor upstate New York. Manor, referred to as a "breeding ground for talent," saw the likes of Natalie Portman (EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU), Mandy Moore, Bijou Phillips (BULLY), Jennifer Jason Leigh (FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH) , Bryce Dallas Howard (SPIDER-MAN 3), Helen Slater (SUPERGIRL), Robert Downey, JR. (KISS KISS BANG BANG) and Lea Michele. It also sprang Todd Graff, who wrote and directed CAMP.

CAMP cold opens with a gospel musical number, HOW SHALL I SEE YOU THROUGH MY TEARS, from the musical THE GOSPEL AT COLONUS. This was jarring for me. Though I've never seen the musical, I know the song (and album) well. So when they started singing this obscure song from a show that only played a few months on Broadway in the 80s, I was already confused. It was like meeting a friend on the street while you're in another country. The performance is intercut with kids saying goodbye to parents, getting on buses and traveling to Ovation where they will go through the pains of a FAME-like boot camp and being a misfit teenager. But does it all have to be such a bummer? Every character carries some sort of woe, especially when it comes to the prom; one took her brother, one watched from the bushes, one stayed home eating cookie dough and one was beaten up. It's the subtext of CAMP - misfits will always have it hard, not only in school but also in the world. Except when on stage, where they get to be someone else.

Ahh, if only they were someone else, instead of characters plucked from the Cliche Casting Corporation of America, like pint-sized ALL ABOUT EVE Fritzi (Anna Kendrick), resident bitch/hottie Jill (Alana Allen), attention whore Vlad (really? Vlad?) (Daniel Letterle) who is one of the few straight kids (at his audition, one of the teachers says to another; "A boy! An honest-to-god straight boy!"). There's also double queen (prom and drag) Michael (Robin de Jesus), and fag-hag Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat). These guys make the Breakfast Club look like the Whiffenpoofs.

But I'm not done. There's alcoholic teacher (he's a teacher who is an alcoholic, not someone who teaches alcoholism) Bert Hanley (Don Dixon), and the character beyond the realm of believability...Jenna (Tiffany Taylor), whose parents had her jaw wired shut to stop her from snacking. Okay, first, why send her to a performing arts camp with a wired jaw? Second, what's the number for CPS? Anyway, also cast - the dancing teacher drill sergeant whose character is so FAME-y that someone actually says something like: "We've all seen FAME!"

So although CAMP is about performing, it's really a melodrama. A king-sized melodrama. Particularly excruciating is a scene involving Vlad and his secret flaw. But also, Jill likes Vlad, Michael likes Vlad, in fact, everyone seems to like Vlad, especially Ellen, who tries to make her feelings known. And good guy Vlad? Well, he turns out to be a great big asshole. But don't take my word, he says it himself.

Jill (Alana Allen) and Vlad (Daniel Letterle)

And the adults are not exempt. Has-been Bert Hanley is a Broadway one-hit wonder who is offered a gig as a rehearsal pianist for a small production of his own show, THE CHILDREN'S CRUSADE (he doesn't take the job). In other words, everyone's baggage at camp isn't only of the duffel variety.

With CAMP, Graff has created a world where individuality is confusing and where Stephen Sondheim may as well be called Jesus Sondheim (actually, for reasons I won't divulge here, you should see this movie if you're a Sondheim fan). It's a world aimed at the highest common denominator, meaning, you really have to know your theater, or even better, be a stage brat in order to really understand what Graff's CAMP wants us to feel. Most lines fall flat on their Max Factored faces, and even the good ones will get lost on the non-theater crowd. Cases in point, 1: "What are you singing for auditions for the first show?" "Don't Rain on My Parade." "Oh, that's original." "With...the tugboat?" 2: When 12 year-old Fritzi says to her roommate, "Don't you remember me (from last year)? We were in 'NIGHT MOTHER together." It's the best line in the movie, but if you don't know what 'NIGHT MOTHER is, you're probably lost. By the way, if you don't know what 'NIGHT MOTHER is, see the play. If you can't, rent the movie. Trust me.

And if the script's characters and inside references don't boggle you to your satisfaction, there are preposterous "let's put on our own show in the barn!" moments that'll make your eyeballs spin. CAMP's also teeming with Hallmark-y resolutions, both happy (though many of these are forced and/or cheated) and sad, and there's more corn than Kansas in August. Too bad. This movie could have popped into our hearts...if it only had a heart itself.

It's a good thing some of the musical numbers are peppy and borderline fun. Ellen's I AM TELLING YOU I'M NOT GOING from DREAMGIRLS, Jenna's rendition of Lynn Ahrens and FAME songwriter Michael Gore's HERE'S WHERE I STAND, a formulaic song of triumph worthy of an AMERICAN IDOL contestant (which did eventually happen), and the finale (details in a moment) stand out. But leading the pack is Fritzi's LADIES WHO LUNCH, from Sondheim's COMPANY, a tough song even for a seasoned pro. This was Anna Kendrick's first movie, before she did UP IN THE AIR and those TWILIGHT movies where she plays Jessica. Not many of the other cast members went on to anything big, except for Robin de Jesus, who has found his niche on Broadway.

The movie's ending is weak and wrong. I didn't believe it for a moment. I didn't believe a character would talk or act like that. So anyway, the movie is over. I mean, it's really over. And then, they come out and do one last song as a curtain call. Now, anyone who knows me knows that I'm a bit of a Todd Rundgren fan, so imagine my shock when, once again (like they did with the opening song), CAMP hits me with the obscure THE WANT OF A NAIL from Todd's NEARLY HUMAN album. CAMP sure hit me with its bookend numbers.

I heard they made many cuts of CAMP, the theatrical one being the one they were happiest with. I can't imagine what the other cuts looked like. And two years after CAMP came STAGEDOOR, a documentary on the real camp which is infinitely better (though offers few surprises).


It seems wrong to compare CAMP with its more popular sister, GLEE. While they both hit the same "we feel like we don't belong, yet we come alive when we're on stage" theme, with GLEE I feel like an audience member when they perform, and an invested viewer when the drama is in gear. CAMP's songs are not nearly as much fun, and the story arcs feel less (here it comes) gleeful. That said, if you're a kid who wants to be a theater nerd, you should see this movie. You'll love it. Everyone else? Season 1 of GLEE is waiting for you.

Preshow Entertainment: AMERICA SINGS!, Griffin Dunne on The Tonight Show (1985)

We watched two things while waiting for the pizza. First up was a 1985 segment of THE TONIGHT SHOW. These were the days where the show would have four or five guests, and when Johnny took a day (or weeks) off, someone else would sit in for him rather than showing a rerun (today, they sometimes rerun talk shows only a few weeks later). Sitting in for Johnny tonight was frequent guest host Joan Rivers. This was 20 years after she had debuted on THE TONIGHT SHOW, and one year, almost to the day, before she had her own talk show on Fox opposite Johnny, the move that prompted Carson to sever his friendship with Rivers forever. Can we not talk?

Griffin Dunne
I recorded this segment because Griffin Dunne not only produced and had a small role in one of my favorite movies (CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER), but was also a member of my video store...so in my eyes, he was a friend. We even talked a few times about CHILLY SCENES and other things, which made us better friends than Johnny and Joan.

We also watched most of an episode of AMERICA SINGS! A friend of mine thought I would like this show, and sent it to me about 18 years ago. I think this was either a public access show or a local late-night show from the Boston area.

America Sings
I believe this was one of the last moments of the once thriving song-poem movement, where a "record company," in this case, Columbine Records (probably to confuse people that they were Columbia Records) will put your poem to music. They'd start you off with a great deal, but by the time you paid for record jackets, photos, distribution, etc. you'd be out a fortune. Well, I believe this was stepped up a notch here, so if you paid even more, you got someone to lip sync your song on television in the middle of the night. Hosted by two unlikely schmoes (one's the owner of the "record company") who try and act as if their wraparounds are unscripted...to hilarious sketch comedy results (but they're not joking). They're just bad and it's all so goofy. Anyway, they introduce singers (perhaps local?), who perform these poems-turned-songs sent in by rubes while the Columbine Gypsies, dancers in skintight unitards, jump around with ill-choreographed movements.

If you're fascinated by this, and why shouldn't you be, here's more info: http://www.songpoemmusic.com/news.htm

I should also add that one of the performers was a guy named Buddy Mix, now selling singers workout CDs and DVDs. I found him here: http://www.buddymix.com/

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