September 12, 2009

I had been looking forward to Barry Blaustein's documentary Guys 'n' Divas: Battle of the High School Musicals for some time now, eager to see local theatre kids given the career boost that would surely come with a big-screen cinematic treatment. But when it recently aired on Showtime, I was stunned at what I saw.

The film immediately started off on the wrong foot when it tried to portray the New Albany area as being in the middle of rural nowhere. Granted, it's no Metropolis, but it's not quite Mayberry RFD either. Blaustein's framing of the setting in this manner made me wary of everything that followed. The condescending, played-for-cheap-laughs message of the film seemed to be ridiculing almost everyone involved - students, teachers, parents. I'm not even a Hoosier and I was highly offended on Southern Indiana's behalf.

Blaustein followed these people around for weeks and I have no doubt that he got plenty of interesting discussions out of them - Unfortunately, it really felt like he bent over backwards to use, out of context, the most unflattering bits that he could catch, and then edited it together in such a way to paint the participants in the worst possible light. In scenes during auditions, some of the worst performers are gleefully zoomed in on, with alleged reaction shots from others tightly edited in. According to this blogger who was there, those auditions were faked and the kids were urged to be deliberately bad!

Call me old-fashioned, but that's not how you make a documentary.

And that's the whole problem with this film - its aesthetic, such as it is, seems completely informed by reality television. Faux-candid shots of trivial personal spats immediately cut, reality-show style, to someone in a chair giving picayune commentary on what we just saw. "I don't think such-and-such really gets along with so-and-so, and she really needs to work on her attitude," "blah blah blah, etc. The end result is something that feels like a cross between the mindlessness of America's Next Top Model and the mockumentary style of Waiting for Guffman.

It shouldn't have surprised me that Blaustein would have treated his subjects so cavalierly - his only other documentary of note is Beyond The Mat, an adoring look at the world of pro wrestling. His other Hollywood credits include the mega-offensive Johnny Knoxville film The Ringer, Police Academy 2, and a handful of lesser Eddie Murphy movies.

Despite the overwhelming snarkiness and unflattering nature of the production, the talent of these youths shines through often enough to make the film semi-watchable, and hopefully someone will benefit from the exposure. I actually haven't heard of anyone complaining about the way they were treated in the film, so perhaps my horse is too high here. But if I was a parent whose child was represented in this film as poorly as some of these kids were, I'd be pissed.

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Jeffrey Scott Holland is the Artistic Director for Catclaw Theatre Company, author of Weird Kentucky on Sterling Press, and painter whose works have been exhibited worldwide. Visit him on the web at .