Things I Learned Watching Hannah Montana 3D
Never say I don't do anything for you people
I didn't even know this Hannah Montana 3D movie was coming out until the weekend before last, when I finally went to see Cloverfield and saw a penned-in mob of parent-accompanied preteen girls waiting outside, all amped to be freezing out there a full hour before the movie even began. And apparently this wasn't just a Park Slope phenomenon; the movie, originally intended to run for just one week, has thus far pulled in more than $50 million, and I can just imagine how absurd the DVD sales are going to be. None of this should be all that surprising considering that the twin Disney phenom High School Musical movies have been keeping the music industry afloat the last couple of years. Still, it's pretty amazing to see a girl who plays a pop star on TV eclipsing virtually any actual pop star in popularity. I'm pretty much entirely not up on the whole Hannah Montana situation, so seeing the movie this afternoon was my introduction. Here's what I learned:
• 3 p.m. on a weekday is the absolute wrong time to go see this movie. Seeing as how half the point of this thing is to induce preteen-girl screaming, it almost certainly loses something when you're one of three people in the theater. Still, I can't say I'm sorry that I avoided some of the suspicious-parent stares that would've inevitably come along with being an unaccompanied adult man going to see this movie in a crowded theater, scribbling notes the whole time. Sometimes being a rock critic means looking like a creep.
• I may find Narnia a more savage place than I remember.
• I should probably see U2 3D. I should definitely see the 3D Journey to the Center of the Earth that's coming out this summer. That looks crazy.
• Unless you count Captain EO at Disney World when I was really young, this was the first 3D movie I've ever seen, and whoof. The things they can do with 3D these days are pretty incredible. There were moments when the camera would pan along the crowd and a waving hand would cross the lens and actually startle me. And the movie's producers pretty much exploited the technology as much as I could've imagined: pyro exploding, streamers flying everywhere, Miley Cyrus pointing at the camera as often as possible. By the end, I had to take my glasses off and give my eyes a rest every couple of minutes. It's a really visceral and enveloping experience, and at this point I'd go see just about any movie if they offered it in 3D: Atonement, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, whatever.
• Judging by this movie, a Hannah Montana live show is basically a real-life version of a Jem concert, and I'm sort of amazed that such a thing exists. Even the session-musician backing-band looked like plastic action figures.
• During the behind-the-scenes segments, we see a whole lot of High School Musical director Kenny Ortega planning the live show, and that guy gives off serious creep-vibes. If I had kids, I wouldn't let that guy anywhere near them.
• The backup dancers basically maintain their constant huge smiles through the entire show. On a big screen and in 3D, those smiles look even weirder and less natural than they do in person.
• As a Disney product, Hannah Montana seems conceived almost entirely as a corrective to Britney Spears. The entire theme of the show is groundedness. On the TV show, Miley Cyrus is a huge teenage pop star whose parents help her maintain a normal life by granting her a secret identity, and most of the sitcom hilarity revolves around Miley trying to keep people from realizing that she's also Hannah. As for the actual Miley Cyrus, she plays both Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana on TV and onstage, which you'd think would lead to unprecedented levels of identity confusion. Except that the Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus halves of the live show, which neatly bisect the movie, are basically exactly the same; the only real difference is that Miley gets a coffeehouse-singer bit where she sits on a stool and strums an acoustic guitar. And when she's not singing about boys or partying, she's singing about how she's just like the girls in her audience. That's a sort of disingenuous message, but the actual Miley Cyrus does a pretty good job selling it. The behind-the-scenes bits show both how much work the whole enterprise involves and how much genuine fun Cyrus seems to have doing it.
• Gratifyingly, Cyrus's parents don't come off as creepy stage-parents, though maybe that means they're just as good at acting as their daughter it is. Father and "Achy Breaky Heart" guy Billy Ray Cyrus, in particular, seems more like a part-time mechanic than an uber-competitive petty dictator or a faded country star; every time we see him, he looks like he just rolled out of bed with a minor hangover.
• Musically, it's pretty striking how little Hannah/Miley shares with synted-up late-90s teenpop. Instead, she traffics in precision-tooled riff-heavy new wave, way more dependent on frighteningly clean guitars than on clubby drum-presents. I could be totally off-base here, but I kept thinking I heard a direct line of influence that started with the early-00s press-beloved return of the rock stuff, one that runs from Strokes/Interpol/Hives through the Killers and "Since U Been Gone" to Hannah. I'm probably totally wrong; it's probably just the latest incarnation of the whole Kim Wylde/Go-Gos/No Doubt/Avril blueprint, but I like my version better.
• I'm not sure I've ever seen any performer so convincingly portray relentless pep. Even when she's playing the song about her dead grandpa, it's hard to believe anything bad has ever happened to this girl.
• The movie goes to some undiscovered extreme in cross-promotion when the giant Jumbotrons behind Cyrus onstage actually play silent clips from the sitcom while she's singing. Audacious!
• Speaking of cross-promotions, Disney stablemates the Jonas Brothers get a pretty significant chunk of screen-time right in the middle of the movie. And they're not the opening band, either; they're the band that plays while Hannah Montana turns into Miley Cyrus. This band has gone through a weird little history. They started out as a teenage pop-punk boy-band on Columbia, a sort of Hanson for the MySpace emo age. They didn't go anywhere; when I went to the big Jersey Bamboozle festival a year and a half ago, they played on, like, the fourth stage. But after Columbia dropped them, they moved over to Disney and became part of that machine, doing stuff like covering "Poor Unfortunate Souls" on a Little Mermaid soundtrack reissue. And now they're a pop juggernaut that'll rival Cyrus herself pretty soon. When they're playing fast-hooky pop-punk, the Jonas Brothers are a lot of fun, but the ballad they play in the middle of their set is some bargain-basement Verve nonsense. "This is for all the ladies in the house," one of them introduces the song, which is pretty funny considering that none of them will ever play another song for the rest of their lives that isn't for all the ladies in the house. And while Cyrus is all slick professionalism onstage, there's something winningly awkward about the Jonases; it's like someone cloned three Sanjayas, turned them all white, dressed them like baby Strokes, and sent them out onstage.
• The movie briefly nods toward the extreme measures parents went to to get their kids tickets to this tour when we see a bunch of dads in a "high-heel derby," all tottering on pumps and racing each other for tickets at some goofy radio-station event. No word on any ankles that might've been broken that day. Also no mention of the four-digit eBay prices some parents paid, or of the one girl who lied about her dad getting killed in Iraq to win an essay contest for tickets.
Voice feature: Mikael Wood on the Jonas Brothers