Camp Rock, starring the Jonas Brothers, reviewed.

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June 20 2008 12:16 PM

Camp Rock

The Jonas Brothers begin their journey toward world domination.

Nick Jonas, Joe Jonas, and Kevin Jonas. Click image to expand.
Nick Jonas, Joe Jonas, and Kevin Jonas of the Jonas Brothers

Before we turn our attention to the clever construction of the made-for-TV movie Camp Rock (Disney Channel, premieres Friday at 8 p.m. ET), let me clearly state this column's position on the musical act at its fluttering heart, the Jonas Brothers. I do this to avoid arousing the wrath of the group's teenybopper constituency—young ladies who, I assure you, dot their I's with bubbly hearts even when penning death threats to intemperate critics.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

First, the boys in this band—Joe (age 18), who sings lead, and siblings Kevin (20) and Nick (15), who play or, at least, hold guitars—are emphatically not in a boy band. Their sound has more rattle than hum, no hips worth speaking of, and it's not indebted to urban grooves in the way of ye olde 'N Sync. Second, they do not suck. The Jonas Brothers' punk lite is preferable to much of the guitar-driven music in the Top 40, including, and especially, the trifling Coldplay. Third, they're cute, with dark-eyed Joe resembling Lord Byron by way of David Cassidy, curly-haired Nick looking like a refugee from a Strokes tribute band, and lanky Kevin favoring vests and cravats that heighten his resemblance to the Monkees' Mike Nesmith. I like them.

Parents and guardians are advised to keep this stuff straight. With a Disney Channel sitcom on the way—and a two-continent concert tour and a 3-D concert film in the works, not to mention the backing of the most relentless marketing machine known to family entertainment—the Jonas Brothers will achieve world domination in time for the holiday shopping season. Note also that the most popular items on their Web site include a hoodie with a gaudy crestlike logo, a tote bag, a calendar, and a poster of the boys—scowling as hard they can without looking actively dangerous—posturing in front of a good sunset and an even better convertible. Where will they take your daughter in that car? Only to second base, I think—the Jonas Brothers began their career in straight-up Christian rock, and another of their best-sellers is a purity ring.

The virgin princess they chastely woo in Camp Rock is Mitchie Torres, a sunbeam played by one Demi Lovato. Mitchie's parents are self-employed strivers on the rise. Dad's expanding the hardware store, and Mom's starting a catering business. So their collars are kind of blue, and Mitchie's skin is vaguely light-brown, which, in combination with her surname, marks this as a story of upward mobility, cultural assimilation, and all of the juvenile drama that attends such matters all the time, everywhere. Also, this being Disney product, these issues are dealt with in primary colors, uplifting tones, and production levels that aim for exact competence—a workaday professionalism that's never too slick to alienate anyone.

We meet Mitchie, a high-school student, at the end of the academic year. "Guess who got an A+ in AP Mandarin? Me! Again!" squeaks her only friend in one of Camp Rock's many anxious nods to the supposed rise and presumed chic of the East. Mitchie is an aspiring performer. What child isn't, these days, in the American Idol climate that the producers know will make this movie resonate? She wants to spend the summer at Camp Rock, where, one presumes, she will learn to rock harder. Despite money being tight, her parents manage to swing this. Mom will be the camp's cook, and Mitchie, helping her in the kitchen, will get a break on tuition.

Once there, Mitchie, seduced by the chance to be cool, disguises her humble origins and enters the court of fellow camper Tess Tyler—a snob, brat, mean girl, underminer, diva, and high-born celebrity spawn. The poor girl claims that her mother is in fact an executive at a Chinese music-video channel, also retailing this fiction to Joe Jonas' character. That's Shane Gray, a petulant pop star whose bandmates (Kevin and Nick) have ordered him to clean up by working as an instructor at the camp, this apparently being the G-rated equivalent of Lindsay Lohan checking into Passages. It does not spoil the plotline to report that Shane, having grown attached to Mitchie, is aggrieved to learn of her imposture: "I really thought you were different! But you're just like everyone else!" Nor should it surprise you to hear that the movie has a message: To thine own self be true.

Every quarter-hour or so, someone emits an original song on an ancient adolescent theme, such as Mitchie optimistically asking, "Who will I be?" and Tess giving voice to pop narcissism: "Me, myself, and I agree/ You'll never catch up with me," she preens. "I'm too cool for you." On the same principle that gives Satan all the best lines in Paradise Lost, Tess' slip of synth pop is the second-best song in the film, only slightly less catchy than "We Rock," the thumping number that closes the show. All the campers, having grown as people and as artists, perform it together, and the choreography recalls "Greased Lightning" from Grease, the attitude and leather of which many Camp Rock fans have yet to see for the first of three or four dozen times. I envy them that, and also that they still get to lay virgin eyes on Whit Stillman's Barcelona. "What if 'thine own self' is not so good?" asks the Chris Eigeman character there. "What if it's pretty bad? Would it be better, in that case, not to be true to thine own self?" Just asking, girls.

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