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It's Not the Meat, It's the Prom-otion

What Lurks Around the Corner of Disney’s "Prom"

by DAVID YEARSLEY

Hollywood’s rating system works in one direction: the older you get, the more “mature” is the content you’re allowed to see without your parents, bearing in mind that maturity and the Hollywood movie generally stand in oxymoronic relation to one another. There is no guide, other than common sense and word of mouth, to inform chronological adults that they might best avoid the most egregiously infantile creations from America’s Dream Machine.

Yet just because a movie is benign and cuddly, doesn’t mean adults won’t enjoy it. The first film I saw in the cinema with my elder daughter, then three-and-a-half, was Disney’s The Tigger Movie in the year 2000. I loved every minute of it, marveling especially at the enduring musical craftsmanship of the songwriting Sherman brothers, Richard and Robert, then in their seventies, and still plugging away, now more than a decade later.

But men of a certain age can probably only see such a movie in the company of kids. Imagine the distrusting stares a middle-aged man would get if he tried to go alone to The Tigger Movie. A lone 46-year-old man in the line for a Disney G-rated movie would appear far more “inappropriate” than an eight-year-old buying a ticket for Scream 4.

The above-mentioned daughter is now thirteen and last Saturday hatched a plan with a couple of her friends to go to Disney’s latest youth offering, Prom. I had harbored no secret desires to see what by definition must be a pointless movie, but I seize every fleeting opportunity to go to the cinema with my kids, realizing that such chances will be scarce indeed in the years to come. I’ll also have to admit that, having made it through Disney’s epic High School Musical trilogy in the company of my daughters, I have developed a fascination with the Mouse House’s treatment of the rites of adolescence.  

Going to the movies with girls, one sees all the more clearly how divided along gender lines film making and marketing are, especially for the teen-set. A man going to Disney’s Prom feels about as out of place as a woman sitting on the Board of Governors of the IMF.

Although I love going to the movies with my daughters, I do realize that all they really need is transport the mall, and that they’d be only too happy to let me drift off to another movie so they can see their thing without me nearby. An inveterate screen-surfer when at the mall, I scanned the LED readout at the Saturday night box office and noted that a showing of Thor in 3-D was just starting.

Once inside the multiplex I let the girls wander off towards Prom, and then tried surreptitiously to reach into large cardboard recycling container for 3-D glasses. In the process of getting the lid off I knocked the whole thing over with an impressive crash.  Forty feet away the ticket-taker, a Gothic teen who seemed unconcerned about doing his part to maximize Regal Cinema’s profits, gave me a casual nod. I grabbed a pair of the glasses, hastily reassembled the container, then ducked into Thor.

The vast majority of this film’s audience was pre- and early-teen boys; hardly a female was to be seen in the packed theatre. yet another Disney picture, Thor is directed by the somewhat celebrated Shakespearean actor and director Kenneth Branagh, apparently enticed away from more legitimate proejcts by the lure of greater fame and bigger money in fantasy action pictures. Whereas Prom presumably is intent on training young girls in the arts of chaste love, courtship, and class spirit, Thor might just as well be a recruiting ad for the U. S. Marines.

I donned my borrowed 3-D glasses as a forlorn-looking Anthony Hopkins, his face wedged comically between the cheek protectors of his Roman-style helmet, descended from icy clouds on a white horse. The redoubtable Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack strummed its ominous electro-acoustic lyre while swords and superheroes in tight leather and armies of bad guys batted about in three-dimensional cinematic airspace. After three minutes of this abject tomfoolery, Prom sounded like a beacon of believability and relevance, so I left Thor to the men and boys, and headed over to the girls in Cinema 11, dropping my 3-D glasses in the bin on the way.

The first thing one notices about audience for Prom, one far smaller than the throngs in Thor, is not only that it is almost exclusively female, but also very young. Aside from the chaperoning mothers, my daughter and her friends are among the oldest kids. A large birthday group of what look like five or six year-olds is nearby our seats. What they can be getting out of this movie, which flopped badly right of the gate, is hard to fathom.

From the earliest age children are fascinated with somewhat older children, and the infantilizing methods of Disney’s Prom perhaps make it possible for a six-year-old to identify with the on-screen figures.

The need to admire the somewhat older kids would also explain why no high schooler seniors, or for that matter any other high-schoolers, were in the Prom audience. It is not merely the disjunction between the realities of proms?the lures of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll?and the Disneyified version that keeps the late teenagers away, but the fact that it would be massively uncool to be seen watching this stuff from the vantage point of senior year in high school 2011.

But identification of these cinematic high-schoolers as larger children would stretch the credibility of all ages. Class president and prom organizer Nova is played by the twenty-one-year-old Aimee Teegarden, while apparent bad boy, but actually big-hearted Jesse is embodied by Thomas McDonell who’s at least twenty five if he’s a day. Even the wizardry of lens gels, expert lighting and makeup, and expensive plastic surgery cannot make these faces appear those of teenagers. It is oddly comforting to see how, like weeds busting through asphalt, nature can still thwart Hollywood’s highly evolved anti-aging technologies.

Kindred forms of scalpel work are applied to the compilation soundtrack of hit songs. That pop traffics almost exclusively in sex while Prom avoids the topic completely, tells us much about the Disney enterprise more generally: avoid the truth wherever possible in order to protect the magic kingdom of good clean family fun. The culminating scene of Prom is set to Katy Perry’s heart-warming and unobjectionable mega-hit “Firework,” one of three number-one singles from her 2010 album, Teenage Dream which I discussed on this site a while back.. The song is all optimism and ebullience, extolling the potential inside every individual: “baby you’re a firework / Come on let your colors burst.” Never mind that Perry has had transgressive hits like “I Kissed a Girl” and “Ur So Gay.” For Prom she’s on message and not in the least irreverent.

Most of the numbers on the Prom soundtrack are anodyne and unthreatening. Where decades ago parents feared the potency of rock ‘n roll to incite youth rebelliousness, if not outright rebellion, most of it has long since been co-opted by everyone from corporate advertisers to Christian praisers. Prom bolsters its often flagging story line, and its most ridiculous conceit?that the girls must wait to be asked to the prom by the boys?with jolts of upbeat, whitebread pop. 

With Nova longing for goody-two-shoes Brandon, who only thinks about himself and the fact he’s just gotten into Princeton, a blast of smarmy sensuality by the Neon Trees, fronted by the mohawked Mormon Tyler Glenn, tries to make us feel how important the prom is for our heroine and all the other good kids. We don’t hear  the song’s  creepy opening “I got close to your skin while you were sleeping / I taste the salt on your hands” (though you get that on the soundtrack album); this is either sung from the point of view of  a faithful dog licking the palms of its master or mistress, or its bizarre suitor, but rather the adoring lines later in the song “You look like a thousand suns,” and the pathetic pleadings “Oh, how long till your surrender?”?though exactly what is to be surrender is left to the imagination.

The furtive erotic drive of this song is neatly suppressed in the service of proving that sex does not exist in this movie’s Michigan high school, with its palm trees and Spanish colonial architecture?geographic setting being suggested by the inexpensive means of showing a couple cars with Michigan license plates though the movie is obviously shot in Los Angeles.

But sex lurks around every corner of the musical hallways of the movie’s soundtrack. Travie McCoy’s “We’ll Be Alright” presents a radically different vision of youth culture than the images on screen: ” yeah, yeah, come on let’s / Get drunk, toast it up, we don’t give a fuck.” And yes, there are “pretty girls everywhere” to get drunk with, smoke pot, and do what follows.

But these sentiments are skirted in favor of ”We are young, we run free”, though, the  possibilities of unbridled freedom are not indulged in the movie itself, the most dangerous escapade a low-speed ride with Nova holding onto Travis as he to his motorcycle. It’s about as risky as updating of “A Bicycle Built for Two.”

Sex is the white elephant just off-screen, and listening to the movie’s music even a jaded parent could almost into forgetting what erotic rhythms and lyrics of pop really suggest.

David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu