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Disney Channel's 'Camp Rock' tuned to the right crowd

Never mind the lead hunk with eyebrows the size of Snickers bars. Never mind the script seemingly penned by my 4-year-old daughter. Never mind the dollar-store production values that make High School Musical play like Citizen Kane.

Flimsy flaws and all, Disney Channel musical Camp Rock is a big fat hit. The movie's Friday debut drew 8.9-million tizzied tweens (and dizzied parents), which makes it the Mouse House network's second-biggest debut ever behind last year's mammoth High School Musical 2.

Camp Rock stars shaggy pop phenoms the Jonas Brothers — bro Joe plays the hunk in need of tweezers — plus a gaggle of unknowns dying to be the next Zac Efron. (Don't know Zac? Go to your kid's room and check out the poster on the back of her door. Yep, that dude.) The ruddy-cheeked cuties go to music camp, cry a little, laugh a little, have the requisite food fight and learn life lessons in the finale form of a yay-prepubescence! group sing.

Nobody can act a lick in Camp Rock, but that's not the point. The movie's stars dress cool, dance cool, talk cool — all without dinging Disney cliche. And while the movie's shelf life will last, the movie's soundtrack will last even longer. The music isn't all that good, mind you — but it is good enough to play in Mom's taxi for the next four months . . . or until High School Musical 3 hits theaters in October.

I'm on record for liking a lot of the G-rated rock from Disney franchises High School Musical and Hannah Montana. I'm not saying it's the Beatles (or even the Rutles). But the company's loyal fleet of songwriters — including Matthew Gerrard, Robbie Nevil, Jamie Houston and Andy Dodd — know how to frame vaguely hip affirmations in power-pop outlines. They are ad men first and foremost, but they occasionally throw caution to the wind and go for genuine art. HSM's phenomenal ensemble piece Stick to the Status Quo would fit in just fine in Godspell.

There's nothing that ambitious on the Camp Rock soundtrack, which was an immediate sales bully on iTunes. Instead, the 12-track album ultimately sounds like a starter course in how to write an up-with-tweens hit. Big beat, layered guitars, shout-out chorus. Once you know one lyric — "Raise your hands up in the air and scream / We're finding our voice, following our dreams" — you know 'em all. It's repeatedly stressed that "all kinds of music" are taught at the titular camp. But even the hip-hop (and I use that term loosely, like calling Funyuns a vegetable) is processed through the same synthy grinder.

The Jonas Brothers, who are basically Shaun Cassidy with guitar lessons, only have one song on the soundtrack: the jaunty gem Play My Music, which is like pop-punk for beginners. (The JoBros' new album is scheduled for August.) Joe does get some alone time with female lead Demi Lovato, but their duet doesn't spark nearly as well as HSM's Start of Something New. (Troy + Gabriella = 4EVA!)

In fact, for the first time, Disney's gold-dusted songwriters deliver a couple of other duds, too. You never knew how much you liked Ashley Tisdale (HSM's snotty Sharpay) until you hear Camp Rock's vanilla villain Meaghan Martin do a brutal Britney on Too Cool and 2 Stars.

But just when all seems lost, along comes what would have been the best song on Sheryl Crow's last album. Written by Houston (and ghost-warbled by Renee Sandstrom), Here I Am starts as a surly little rocker and turns into a big, orchestrated weeper. Performed in the movie by a supporting player, it's the lone nuanced song on Camp Rock, and I wouldn't be surprised if it charts with adults, too.

My daughter and her pals wail that song, and all the rest on the Camp Rock soundtrack, as if they were gospel. So really now, never mind what Daddy says. As far as Disney is concerned, mission accomplished.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.

Review: Various Artists, Camp Rock Soundtrack (Walt Disney) GRADE: C

Disney Channel's 'Camp Rock' tuned to the right crowd 06/24/08 [Last modified: Friday, June 27, 2008 9:29am]

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