Going out in (fabulous) style…
by Adam Miller
The HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL (HSM) franchise has produced some sharply divergent opinions. There were no divergent opinions at my screening of HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3: SENIOR YEAR because at 7:15 on a Monday night I was the only person in the theater. So my opinion? HSM3 is outstanding.
But for the sake of fair coverage, some critics cringe at the idea of Disney making so much money off of so much schlock. Opposed to them are the millions of pre-teen fans who would love to eat Zac Efron alive, not to mention the thousands of post-post-teen fans who might like to do the same to Vanessa Hudgens.
Before you say “Ew!” keep in mind: bodies are on full display in HSM3: SENIOR YEAR. As usual, Efron rips off his shirt and flexes his muscles. But Vanessa Hudgens breasts are a bit more on display in some more revealing outfits. As are Ashley Tisdale’s legs. But while this extra skin may appeal to some as a sexual turn-on, to me it was instead an impressive display of these performer’s athleticism.
Athletic is exactly what this film is. Perhaps those who disregard it prefer a more intellectual piece of art, and on an average so would I, but there is no denying superior grace, energy, and pizzazz. In a film world increasingly reliant on computer generated monsters and explosions to make their audience say “Woah!” I was extremely pleased that masterful movement of the human body can produce the same effect.
What kind of movement? Picture Gene Kelly (who director/choreographer Kenny Ortega worked with on the equally campy XANADU) on post-modern electric steroids. Kelly was all about having the dancer incorporate the environment into his dance. Ortega takes that approach, but uses environments Kelly could only have dreamed of: rotating high school hallways, junkyard cars which magically come to life, even simple rain on a rooftop (ok, to be fair no one has done rain better than Kelly). But the spectacle of the set never outclasses the raw performance of the dancers. They are simply stunning.
Some might feel that the over-the-top set pieces distract from cogent storytelling. Certainly not much happens in HSM3: the kids get ready to graduate, win the basketball championship, put on a musical, and say their goodbyes. With so little terra firma to work with, HSM3 spends much of its time in a surreal alternate universe of stage sets, costumes, and lighting that completely abandon any attempt to make the musical aspects of the film part of its diegesis.
Returning to Kelly’s oeuvre again, I am reminded of the “Broadway Ballet” scene from SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (one of the greatest films ever made, in my humble opinion). Of that scene Roger Ebert wrote “it's possible to enjoy ‘Broadway Ballet’ and still wonder if it's really needed; it stops the headlong energy dead in its tracks for something more formal and considered.” HSM3 is like one “Broadway Ballet” after another. Sometimes these numbers advance the plot but mostly they are excuses to present themes already familiar to the trilogy on one final, epic stage.
Because while HSM3 pretends to be about something greater than music and dance, in reality that’s all it is. HSM3 and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, for that matter, spend most of their time gesturing and toying with themselves before finally throwing up their (jazz) hands and showing us what they really are: WE LOVE DANCE! WE LOVE CHOREOGRAPHY! WE LOVE SPECTACLE! We are doing this whole plotting/acting business because we have to, but all we want to really show you is flamboyant sights, poppy sounds, and beautiful bodies in motion.
HSM3 wants you to believe that it’s about growing up, making personal choices, and saying goodbye. That’s fine and all, but its subtextual subject matter is a little more interesting: HSM3 is a gay movie. I won’t get into a history of terminology and sexual definition, but suffice it to say that HSM3 captures both the older meaning of “gay” (happy, ebullient) as well as the funneling of that meaning into a sexual orientation. The character of Ryan Evans (Lucas Grabeel) encapsulates this. Ryan, as fans know, is about as flamboyantly gay as a Disney character could ever be WITHOUT being explicitly out-of-the-closet. In fact, in HSM3 Ryan actually asks a girl out to prom!
But don’t let this confuse you. The film’s gayness extends far beyond a single character. Take for example the homosocial relationship between Chad Danforth (Corbin Bleu) and Troy Bolton (Zac Efron). Theorist Eve Sedgwick developed the term “homosocial” to describe a relationship in which two males form an alliance that is not expressly sexual but is nevertheless deeply interdependent and emotional. HSM3 spends a an entire musical number exploring Chad and Troy’s childhood as they played as ninjas rescuing imaginary princesses in a junkyard. When the relationship between Troy and Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) seems in doubt, it is Chad who comforts his friend by reminding him that they’ll have each other next year. By film’s end, however, it is finally announced that the two friends will be going different directions in life causing Chad to exit, briefly, in a fit of anger.
(I won’t even go into the scene where two Troy and Chad initiate their new underclassmen analogues by having them run through the school halls nearly naked. Or how about when Troy is finally “outted” by his father who finds a brochure for Julliard under Troy’s bed?)
But while I could go on cataloguing, the expressed point of the HSM trilogy is integration. Athletes join with artists to create a high school musical AND win a basketball championship. So while the film can be read as “gay” its active message is to make such terms innocuous to an increasingly diverse population. This is fantasy after all.
My final attitude on the entire HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL series is forthcoming, but I left the movie theater perfectly happy with my ten dollars spent. HSM3: SENIOR YEAR is pop, is pulp, is fabulous. Go see it.