‘Camp’, the musical comedy from writer/director Todd Graff, might just become the UK’S newest smash sleeper hit. Like last year’s low-budget but phenomenally successful ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’, ‘Camp’ is a funny and warm film boasting a Hollywood A-lister (Danny De Vito) as one of its producers, which will strike an emotional chord with many of its viewers. Whereas the success of last year’s huge profit-making movie (at least for Mr and Mrs Hanks) can be attributed to a universal identification with the overbearing/loving family at its centre, ‘Camp’ initially seems to be targeted at just one niche group – lovers of musical theatre. Yet with its boundless energy, witty script and open, honest performances, ‘Camp’ may well be able to broaden its appeal and attract audiences looking for the feel-good film of the summer.
‘Camp’ follows the lives of a group of young people who spend their summer at ‘Camp Ovation’, a cross between ‘Fame’ and band camp in ‘American Pie 2’ (but without the uniforms or Alyson Hannigan). Ostracized at school by a society that can’t be bothered to try and understand them, kids like Michael (Robin De Jesus) who gets beaten up for attending his prom in drag, or Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat), who’s so unpopular she has to bribe her brother to take her to her prom, escape the frustration of their daily lives by spending eight glorious weeks with like minded ‘freaks’ who all share a deep, undying love for Broadway – its characters, its bittersweet humour and, most of all, its songs.
People who know people who know every word to ‘Les Miserables’ will understand how easily ‘Camp’ could have fallen into the trap of portraying the majority of its cast as deeply annoying and pretentious youngsters who run around shrieking about the 1967 Broadway production of ‘Bye, Bye Birdie’. ‘Camp’, however, is able to avoid such a trap, not least thanks to the strength of its cast. Not wanting to use any ‘name’ actors, Graff scoured the US for unknowns, eventually bringing together a very, very talented bunch of youngsters, whose occasional lack of acting talent is more than made up for by their amazing singing abilities and in, many cases, bucket loads of downright charm.
The cast is helped by the fact that ‘Camp’ takes the ‘Chicago’ rather than the ‘Moulin Rouge’ route. ‘Moulin Rouge’ was able to sidestep the embarrassment of having its characters burst into song through inspired direction and fantastic musical arrangement. If ‘Camp’ also had its cast ‘do a McGregor’ and, out of nowhere, launch into something like ‘Your Song’, its audience might have dry-wretched into their popcorn. Fortunately, as the film is set at performing arts camp, it can place its regular musical numbers in the less-grating context of stage auditions and performances. Similarly to ‘Chicago’, this allows for a bit of character development, but most of all it allows for some show-stopping numbers which are simply terrific.
It is the music in ‘Camp’ that really makes the film. Graff was exceedingly lucky enough to gain access to a couple of pieces from a certain Mr Stephen Sondheim (as well as access to the man himself, who makes a cameo at the end of the film). By having perhaps Broadway’s most famous figure on board, Graff was then able to secure the rights to songs from adult shows such as ‘Company’ and ‘Promises, Promises’, which not only ensures musical quality but also stops ‘Camp’ from entering saccharine-sweet ‘Annie’ territory. And Graff certainly does not waste his musical opportunities, displaying a sure and steady hand in his musical direction, allowing the pure, unadulterated talent he has put together to shine through unobstructed.
It’s when the camera turns away from the stage that the film occasionally drags. Although the script is at times very amusing, producing quite a few laugh-out-loud moments, waspish asides alone are not enough, and when Graff tries to tackle some serious ‘youth’ issues, although well intended, his efforts somehow doesn’t quite ring true. ‘Camp’ also spends too long exploring a rather overstretched ‘love’ triangle between Vlad (Daniel Letterle as an All-American-boy-with-a secret), Ellen (15 year old fag hag) and Michael (a Spanish cross-dressing dead-ringer for Will Young). This means that rather inane and trite emotional relationships are focused on at the expense of more interesting characters, particularly the fantastic Fritzie (Anna Kendrick), a girl of Glenn-Close-in-Fatal-Attraction-like intensity whose performance is a pleasure to behold.
‘Camp’ won’t be to everyone’s tastes, and boring, emotionally repressed individuals who don’t like musical numbers in their films will undoubtedly snigger at proceedings in a patronising manner. But for those of use who don’t mind a bit of light-hearted gay abandon from time to time, ‘Camp’ is a whole lot of fun.
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