Disney’s Camp Rock Race War: It’s On!

In an earlier post about the “Jonas Brothers and Demi Lovato Featuring Friends from Camp Rock 2 Tour,” I had expressed worry that when CR2 came out with its promised battle between two rival rock and roll camps, there would be a disquieting element of racism as a subtext.  The Disney Channel movie premiered last night at 8PM, and it’s an improvement, I thought, on the original, especially in the acting department and the incorporation of all three of the Jonas Brothers, no doubt to the delight of their fans (plus the “Bonus” Jonas, little brother Frankie, also plays a camper this time).  The New York Daily News review gave it a “B” and hero-movies.com called it a “sweet treat for all”, and I agree — mostly.

The heroine Mitchie Torres (Demi Lovato, former friend of Barney) returns to camp, confident and eager this time, especially to be reunited with her almost boyfriend, Shane Grey (Joe Jonas), a star in the band Connect Three (which brings in the other Jonases, Kevin as Jason and Nick as Nate).  Though major rock stars, they fit in with this wholesome and unpretentious rock and roll camp run by their uncle, Brown Cesario (Daniel Fathers).  But Brown is worried, because a rival, the guy his one time monster rock band kicked out years ago, has just “coincidentally” opened another rock and roll camp, Camp Star, right across the lake from Camp Rock.  When the Camp Rockers naively accept the invitation to visit Camp Star, they are confronted with a slick, ultra professional and soulless arena for performance, run by Axel Turner (Daniel Kash), an evil bitter man with Malcolm McLaren’s sunglasses.   He offers double the pay to any Camp Rock employees who defect, and most of them go over to the dark side (even Mitchie’s mother considers it).  A few of the campers, including embittered diva Tess (Meaghan Martin), also switch to Camp Star — which leaves Camp Rock unable to operate and about to shut down, until the kids volunteer to take over for staff and eventually challenge Camp Star to a competition in a “Final Jam”, to be televised around the world.  It’s a musical, so in the longstanding tradition of musical fantasies, we are not to question why so many viewers all over the globe would want to tune in to see two summer camps duke it out musically over which one is better.  Unless you are an academic — so I’ll start my critique right now!

As a snarky writing  instructor, I always find it a little annoying when movies present us with what we are meant to recognize as a developing romance by presenting a montage of the aspiring couple set to a bouncy soundtrack, and CR2 does this a few times.  This movie is a musical, so the music should help tell the story, but  it doesn’t, really, in a few key moments of the storyline.  First, before the Camp Rockers throw down and challenge Camp Star to a performance contest, they sing “We Can’t Back Down”, a good song about how the kids want to take a hand in restoring their camp and not simply accept that Camp Rock can’t pay its bills and must close.  But  they sing about having to “win this thing” before there is a thing, a contest, to win.  Nitpicky, yes, but one other instance marred the story for me more.  In a climactic scene in which Mitchie  and Shane sing about how they drive each other “insane” with their differences but they “wouldn’t change a thing”, they sing this separately, after fighting because she thinks he does not take the fight for Camp Rock seriously and he thinks she is a bit of a control freak because she yelled at people for taking a break after working for five hours. They go off alone and apart and sing about their frustration, but somehow over the course of the night, we are to understand that Shane learns something and changes, because he wakes up all the campers early and has them get to work on the show, even though his previous inclination was to get everyone to have a good time in a water fight and work a little bit less.  But if Shane hadn’t changed his mind, however mysteriously and suddenly, there would have been no narrative explanation for the kiss between Mitchie and Shane that fans have been waiting for since the first movie (made all the more dramatic for fans who have followed the drama of the Joe-Demi romance and breakup that apparently got ugly at a few points; if other blogs are to be believed, personal trainers were necessary to help both parties learn to “manage [their] aggression.” Yow.)  Similarly, as Nate, Nick Jonas gets a romance this time, but it amounts mostly to his stalking the girl of his dreams, Dana (played by a mini Angelina Jolie named Chloe Bridges), the daughter of the Camp Star impresario, by peering across the lake at her through binoculars.  This lack of contact makes it seem a little ridiculous when she crosses the lake to Camp Rock and complains that he has failed to open up and reveal his true self to her. He would have needed a megaphone to yell across the water.  But it results in a moment when the music does tell the story, or at least establishes a character, because Nate paddles across the lake and sings “Introducing Me”, in which he extols a love of checks with lots of zeroes and a belief that any cheese not on pizza or a “homemade quesadilla” “smells like feet.”  She, of course, realizes that she loves him, too.

Even if she is one of the few white people at Camp Star, the rival — and therefore sinister — camp that was built across the lake from Camp Rock. And this is where the fun gets a little less fun.

An article on msnbc.com describes the difference between the two camps as one of  “style” versus “substance”, with Camp Rock having all the substance.  This is true, but it is unfortunate that there is an urbanized and racialized difference to the style that substance trumps.  The songs, dances, and wardrobes of the Camp Star performers are predominantly urban, hip hop and rap influenced. Even the structures at Camp Star seem urban industrial (very dark and seemingly constructed of metal and wire) while Camp Rock is soothing and sylvan, with campfires and wooden cabins without air conditioning.  In Camp Star’s first showcase song, “Fire”, Mdot and his backup crew are wearing studded black leather jackets and black boots or white sneakers, a more sinister version of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” garb mixed with a little RunDMC, while the Camp Rockers wear unmatched clothing (they’re not automatons in uniform!) and favor denim shorts and colorful shirts in flowing fabrics. 

So while Camp Rock scores its moral victory in its performance,  it does so as an “organic”, clean, old-fashioned rock and roll outfit, complete with “home” movies of all the campers, not just the stars, playing in the background.  Rock and roll, as Shane and his brothers teach us, is about “heart and soul”; rap and hiphop, we learn, are about flash and narcissism and a vague menace. Right or wrong, there are a lot of parents who would consider any of the brothers below to be a better prom date for their daughters than 2006 Urban Threshold Music Awards’ winner for Best R&B male, Matthew “Mdot” Finley pictured to the left.

And this movie doesn’t do anything to make a parent (or a child) reevaluate those stereotypes.  The film teaches us that both types of musicians may be talented, but it is the wholesome  heartland  happiness of the rock and roll camp, with its acoustic guitars and bonfires and s’mores and catching fireflies and shooting waterguns, that everyone really wants – because half of Camp Star comes over to Camp Rock after the contest and asks if they can come to that camp next year.

It’s been discussed many times how rock and roll was “stolen” from black culture by icons like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis.  Is there a concern that through hip hop black culture is taking something back?  Maybe.  There must be some reason why a musical form as organic and grassroots as hip hop is being criticized now (by the Disney corporation!) as being too slick and cynical and all about appearance.  As viewers, we all know who should win the contest (Camp Rock) but we also know who will win (Camp Star) because they have all the resources and the power.  Evil Axel even sends out texts to the phones of Camp Rockers urging them to vote for Camp Star in the contest.  In the twenty-first century, it’s tweet voting and technology that score big, but in the film only the ignoble would employ these means, rather than relying on “heart and soul.”  Is it further irony that online Kevin Jonas Central urged fans this morning “Don’t forget to make #CampRock2 the #1 trending spot on twitter”?  Probably.  Or just more of the brilliant marketing Disney has always done, on a more seemingly simple grassroots, direct-from-the fans kind of way.

The  music (not written by any of the stars of the movie) is enjoyable enough, the dance numbers are fun, and there are some funny moments, most of them poking fun at the individual personae of the Jonases, despite their not playing themselves (when a “junior rocker” asks Kevin/Jason how to be a lead singer, Kevin/Jason tells him, “You’re going to need tighter pants and a tambourine”, to brother Joe/Shane’s good-natured chagrin.)  Disney generates stars and markets them better than just about anybody, and the movie certainly ends with the possibility of a sequel, so more could be on the way (one blogger speculated that like High School Musical, the third installment of Camp Rock will be feature-length and shown in theaters).  Here’s hoping for a better take on musical diversity when that happens.

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About Stephanie Wardrop

I'm the author of the Swoon Romance e-novella series SNARK AND CIRCUMSTANCE available on Amazon and B&N. I teach writing and Children's, Women's, British, and American Lit at Western New England University. View all posts by Stephanie Wardrop

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