Music fans and aficionados should be familiar with the 1990s VH1 docu-series Behind The Music or movies like 1996s That Thing You Do!. These mediums have an identical sense of patterning – musicians find each other and bond over pure love of creation. They get their big break and problems ensue as they get more popular. Either resulting in a total breakup or a return to the purity that brought them together initially.
Teenage Badass explores these themes in a more truncated way. The movie’s fictional band, Stylo and the Murder Dogs don’t quite get to the level of massive recording deals and evening shows – at least within the runtime. However, writer/director Grant McCord strives to draw the audience in with characters you can attach yourself to emotionally and situations you’ll recognize.
Teenage Badass is set in 2006 in Phoenix, Arizona – just in case the sight of flip phones throws you off. Brad Jaffe (Mcabe Gregg) is a 19-year-old aspiring drummer who helps his ailing mom cleaning houses. Meanwhile, a local band composed of lead singer and songwriter Kirk Stylo (Evan Ultra), guitarist Al (Dillon Lane), and keyboardist Mark (Tucker Audie) lose their drummer because of stylistic clashes. This opens up a chance for Brad to join the band just in time for their show that weekend. From that point, Stylo and the Murder Dogs venture into their aspirations in making the big time.
The heart of the film lies within two characters, Brad and Kirk. Brad just wants to fulfill his dream and leave the meager circumstances of his life. He literally runs to the band audition early on. Brad keeps his good heart nature as he goes through acclimating himself within the band and finding love with a bartender named Melanie (Elsie Hewitt). Kirk seems to personify everything wrong while embodying the stereotypical, egotistic lead singer.
Even though he’s the creative heart of Stylo and the Murder Dogs, he’s a mess both physically and emotionally. He also makes some nefarious business decisions that put the band’s early history and his relationship with his girlfriend Candice (Madelyn Deutch) in peril. There’s a redemption arch that Kirk has to go on – if you’ve seen in previous music narratives, it will feel like familiar territory.
McCord & and co-writer Matthew D. Dho puts a lot of stock in conversations between band members. Those feel organic mostly and makes the audience feel like there’s a genuine bond that forms between everyone. It’s where the comedy works well. In saying that, supporting characters like Jordan (Kevin Corrigan) who is a studio owner, and Buddy the Intern (Matthew Dho) feels like outsiders. Many of their jokes feel as though they are filling the prototypical filler. Here’s a caretaker looking for an up-and-coming band to be his meal ticket, and he has a sidekick that takes his verbal jabs.
One can appreciate the film for keeping the indie aesthetic and ignoring the bright lights and big city story arch that most of these band films get accustomed to. However, it’s a double-edged sword because once you get to the second act of the film, circumstances that usually happen to veteran bands fall upon this one. It feels about ten years of potential history in an hour. For a DIY band in their infancy, things like breakups and rehab stints feel way too soon.
The movie also repeats a lot of slow-motion shots and introduces a “we’re counter,” that’s attached to Candice’s character, a gimmick that occurs just in the first act. Either though it’s set in the 1990s, Teenage Badass feels like it could occur in the present day. Other than a few props and recording practice mentions, there’s not much that distinguishes the movie in time periods. All things considered, the charm and emotion of the characters make this story enduring and transferable. You’ll wonder how a young band can go through so much, but root for them all the same.