Just when you thought that the numbing virus of From Justin to Kelly had killed the good will toward musicals built up by Chicago, along comes Camp to get a new momentum rolling. I’d call Camp some kind of miracle. Shot by first-time director Todd Graff in twenty-three days on a shoestring with an unknown cast, the movie — a smash at Sundance — is the modestly perfect antidote to a synthetic, overblown movie summer: a blast of exuberant fun that stays rooted in humanity.
For starters, the young actors have real faces, real bodies, real talents — they’re true American idols, not the glossy pinups Hollywood shoves at us. Despite their inexperience, there’s a bracing freshness to their performances. The teens at Camp Ovation are self-proclaimed show freaks who have no idea who Neil Young is but can group-sing “Losing My Mind,” a torchy, complicated Stephen Sondheim ballad.
Who are you people?” asks Bert Hanley (Don Dixon), the washed-up, sarcastic, mostly drunk Broadway tunesmith now working as a Camp instructor. Graff knows who these people are. He should. An actor in musicals (Baby) and film (The Abyss), Graff attended the Camp (Stagedoor Manor in Loch Sheldrake, New York) that the film is based on and where it was shot. So did Jennifer Jason Leigh, Natalie Portman and Robert Downey Jr., among others. Graff’s heartfelt and hilarious script has the kick of direct experience. You can feel it in the characters and in their back stories:
Michael (Robin De Jesus) is a gay Latin cross-dresser who gets the shit kicked out of him by four jocks for going to his prom in drag.
Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat) is a plain Jane who has to pay sixty bucks to her brother to take her to a dance.
Vlad (Daniel Letterle) is a hunk, a first-timer at Camp Ovation and the object of lust for both Michael and Ellen. “Have you ever experimented with heterosexuality?” Vlad asks Michael, who answers, “What — sleep with a straight guy?”
The more dramatic the conflicts, the funnier they are: The colorblind casting of two black boys in Fiddler on the Roof. Michael playing Romeo and switching midscene to lines from West Side Story. The revenge that Camper Fritzi (a terrific Anna Kendrick) takes on Camp bombshell Jill (Alana Allen) for treating her like a slave. It involves a household cleaner, much puking and Fritzi replacing Jill onstage to sing “The Ladies Who Lunch.” You’d laugh hearing this teenager sing Sondheim’s caustic cry of middle-age angst — if she didn’t do it with such showstopping conviction. “You’re a scary little girl,” says Bert. He got that right.
Camp is full of surprises. It also slips into sentimentality and a formula that’s been overworked since Fame. No matter. When Bert angrily tells the kids their lives will lead only to bitterness and “the obsessive, pointless collecting of out-of-print original-cast albums,” even he doesn’t buy it. This film is about getting spirits up. The climactic number, “Here’s Where I Stand,” with music by Fame’s Michael Gore, is a rouser. Sung by Jenna (the sensational Tiffany Taylor), a fat girl whose parents had her jaw wired shut, the song is a burst of defiance and joy. Ditto the movie. Camp is something to cheer for.
Camp Angel Stephen Sondheim — Broadway’s legenday composer — helps put a little movie in the big leagues
Camp director Todd Graff — watch this guy, he’s good — owes a debt to Stephen Sondheim. Graff had written a script that made songs from Sondheim shows such as Company, Follies and West Side Story integral to the plot. The rights to those songs would cost money — lots of it. “I was in denial,” says Graff, who wrote to Sondheim, sent him the script and begged for mercy. He got it.
And that was the ticket to getting rights to songs he couldn’t afford from other artists. How do you persuade the Rolling Stones to let the Vlad character sing “Wild Horses” without a big payoff? Why should Henry Krieger hand over his Dreamgirls hit “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” for Ellen to sing, or Burt Bacharach and Hal David provide “Turkey Lurkey Time” from Promises, Promises? “I told them all that Sondheim wasn’t really charging us,” says Graff. “I shamed them into it.” He also shamed Sondheim into doing a cameo in the film as himself. Graff and the Camp cast didn’t have to fake the worship on their faces when Sondheim showed up on the set for his scene. It was real.