'Julie and the Phantoms': Kenny Ortega strikes gold again with fantasy teen musical that has a spooky twist
Spoilers for the Netflix series 'Julie and the Phantoms' (2020)
Emmy Award-winning director and producer Kenny Ortega is back with his latest teen musical project, 'Julie and the Phantoms', a tale of a young girl trying to find her passion for music again. And much like with 'High School Musical' and 'Descendants', Ortega has found yet another way to spin the coming-of-age teen musical drama such that it still feels fresh despite being a genre we've seen done so many times over.
'Julie and the Phantoms', as the name implies, centers on a character named Julie and the three 'phantoms' or ghosts she befriends. At the start of this journey, we meet a broken teen who is still trying to cope with losing her mother when she chances upon some forgotten items stashed away in her mother's old studio. Rummaging through, an old CD from a band named Sunset Curve piques her interest, and playing it releases three of the band's members from a twenty-five year run in limbo. After an initial round of screaming and distrust, Julie and the Phantoms realize here's something unique to their bond, and it seemingly has to do with music: Julie, whose passion was tied to her mother hasn't been able to play music for a year, and the Phantoms, being dead, can't play for anyone. Except, of course, when they play with Julie, whose music for some odd reason seems to have the ability to make them visible to 'lifers'.
The teen musical genre is, in many ways, quite overdone. You have a simple formula, and if you stick to that script, you'll get what is essentially a newer version of 'High School Musical'. But Ortega and his team have managed to revamp the story by tossing in a bit of fantasy, and seeing how well that worked on 'Descendants', it's no surprise they're trying their hand at it once more with 'Julie and the Phantoms'. And it's a good thing too because there's a lot this show gets right, from a diverse cast that puts a Latinx family front and center, to the tackling of grief and loss in a show designed to be lighthearted, to introducing us to some promising new performers.
'Julie and the Phantoms' kicks off a little rocky, with the first episode featuring some mildly stunted dialogue and a bit of stiff acting to go with it. Does that make it a little difficult to get into right off the bat? Sure. But does the show more than makeup for it from there on out? Absolutely. Newcomer Madison Reyes, naturally, is a standout. As Julie, she delivers a solid debut performance, proving her mettle as both an actress as well as a singer. And at just 16, she's already proving to be a star in her own right. Charlie Gillespie will no doubt turn out to be the newest teen heartthrob, seeing as his character Luke is the lead singer and guitarist as well as songwriter of Sunset Curve and the one that manages to steal Julie's heart. Jeremy Shada and Owen Patrick Joyner, who play bass guitarist Reggie and drummer Alex respectively are also standouts, playing off each other perfectly to give the show some of its best comedic moments. But for all the show's lightheartedness, it does give us a few moments of pain, and all members of the lead cast manage to do a stellar job switching gears. Gillespie, in particular, manages to really tug at the heartstrings in the scenes that have him revisiting his parents as a ghost and watching them celebrate his birthday, 25 years after they lost him.
The show centering on a Latinx family was something Ortega orchestrated, passionately so. To that end, there are no attempts to whitewash any of the roles, with all members of Julie's family being played by Latinx actors. Additionally, Julie's mother, best friend, and music teacher are portrayed by Black actors, and the supporting cast also delivers some Native American representation. In addition to racial diversity, the show also gives us LGBTQIA++ representation in the form of Joyner's Alex, who becomes romantically involved with a fellow ghost boy named Willie played by 'Descendants' actor Booboo Stewart. Fellow 'Descendants' actor Cheyenne Jackson portrays the fabulous owner of a mysterious ghost club, Caleb Covington, who slowly becomes the show's primary antagonist that wishes to put an end to the Phantoms' revived career due to it threatening his fine establishment. And, as villains tend to do, he puts a curse on the Phantoms as assurance that they will either work for him or disappear forever.
Does the show's diverse cast make 'Julie and the Phantoms' the epitome of on-screen representation for marginalized groups? Not quite. What works well about its representation, however, is that while the cast is diverse, the story being told does not center solely on tokenism. Elements of culture punctuate Julie's life, but they do not dictate it. A gay couple features on-screen, but it is no different from any regular couple portrayed in shows of this nature. Marginalized experiences are not hyper-focused on in a way that turns their lives into a spectacle. They're allowed to be exactly who they are with stories that play out naturally, and that's commendable.
A lot more could be said about the stellar supporting cast, but in addition to their performances, what must be praised is the show's ability to craft a coherent story despite its myriad of characters, which includes Julie's best-friend-turned-nemesis Carrie (Savannah Lee May), her father and ex-Sunset Curve member Trevor 'Bobby' Wilson (Steve Bacic), her ex-boyfriend and Julie's previous crush Nick (Sacha Carlson), and Julie's current BFF, Flynn (Jadah Marie). Each character is fleshed out just enough that they feel like genuine people, yet no singly story tangent strays too far off from the main plot. All the threads tie in perfectly.
And the main thread that holds it all together is Julie and the Phantoms. After forming a band and passing off the ghosts as a hologram, Julie and the Phantoms secure Sunset Curve's dream gig in the hopes that it will help them resolve their worldly ties and prevent them from succumbing to Covington's curse. The show ends on a cliffhanger, with the Phantoms nearly disappearing before mysteriously breaking Covington's curse, leading him to possess the body of an unsuspecting Nick just as he tries to woo Julie one more time. It appears Covington is not quite done with the Phantoms just yet. The Phantoms, in turn, have somehow been returned to having corporeal forms that allow them to be seen and touched by others. The suspense is just the hook to keep watchers wanting more, but alas, we must wait for the yet-to-be-announced second season.
All episodes of Season 1 of 'Julie and the Phantoms' are now streaming on Netflix.