Joel’s last piece for The Toast was “No Fats, No Femmes, No Asians.”
You could say Whoopi started a movement.
I am of course speaking about a very niche, a very important corner of our pop culture landscape: the inspirational singing competition movie. What would the late twentieth century and early aughts have been without the tried and true formula of a group of misfit teens getting together, ignoring racial and class divides, in order to learn to sing and dance together as a team. They shouldn’t win, but they almost always do— Each archetype step-touching, doo-wopping and mash-upping their way through their own Campbell-esque hero’s journey.
I’m sorry to admit it to you today, but I never attended a regional singing competition as a teenager or young adult. Thankfully though, like many a Millennial, I received several regional singing competition trophies by simply wishing for them with enough frequency. It is with this experience in mind that I come to you today to present the five most important, most iconic ISC movies to date, graded (of course) by these triumphant performances:
SISTER ACT 2
Our little genre’s Monomyth, setting the tone for what is sure to be another century’s worth of regional competitions. Whoopi Goldberg’s Sister Mary Clarence returning to the Sister Act universe, finally free from the life and death stakes of her previous adventure. No longer running from a dangerous past, but taking up arms with her young charges against a threat that can only be described as “pretty upsetting.”
School closures. Public schools. Long commutes.
This is the one we remember, the one we imitated on the dance floors of our college house parties. Our right hands proudly pressed to our foreheads and our left arms firmly outstretched behind us. We bellowed then, that we were “down with G.O.D.” when only a few of us (a long silent minority) were just a little bit down with G.O.D. during orientation week.
Beyond its contribution to a structure that would endure through nearly three decades of movies, Sister Act 2 awakened something in us. Reviving the rebellious voice inside every teenager that just wanted to be good at something, and was willing to die singing our shoulda woulda couldas in order to make it.
Triumph: 9. Triumphant. The very nature of triumph.
CAMP ROCK 2
“A petty, vile creation,” our children will say, viewing this film for the first time in their history courses. Their mouths agape, their ears straining to find something worth listening to. Only later will they ask— “when did this come out?”
Perhaps a sequel, or perhaps the singular creation of a group of people who sought to piggyback off the success of another movie with the number “2” prominently featured in its title that had been released (suspiciously) only seventeen years prior. Maybe (or additionally) an ill-advised and transparent attempt at redefining a genre that didn’t need redefining.
The execution of a silly idea, destined to fail. A camp of rocks, indeed. Floating to the bottom of the lake of musical triumphs that we’re discussing today.
Love the Jonas Brothers, though. Absolutely j’adore them. So cute in like, every way possible.
Triumph: 4. If triumph can be found in bland acoustic pop rock and premature audience clapping? Look for it here.
An absolute joy to watch. Indeed, its primary descriptor placed, like the Purloined Letter, right there in the title for all to see.
A movie that goes to such great length to honor Sister Act 2, some have argued that Joyful Noise goes beyond homage and drifts dangerously close to plagiarism. On the surface, such arguments may have some validity. After all, Joyful Noise mirrors Sister Act 2 in its penultimate moments in so many cosmetic and structural ways that it can be somewhat startling. From the last minute costume change and the frustrated stage management, to the use of familiar uptempo pop songs infused with religious meaning. Even the central conflict— closure, here a church and in the latter a school.
But those who seek to besmirch this movie are ignoring the context. The intrinsic theological differences in Catholicism and Protestantism that are clearly at play in both movies.
Also, Dolly Parton.
Triumph: 8. When my mind even brushes up against the word “triumph,” I am immediately transported to Dolly Parton covering a Chris Brown song. Read that sentence again.
The contemporary choice, to be sure. The beauty queen, striding confidently to the head of this group with its gloss and its gleam and its Anna Kendrick’s “Cups.” A worthy addition to the collection of movies we’re discussing today to be sure. It meets all the necessary requirements with its tight choreography and even tighter harmonies, a regional competition and colorful misfit archetypes. But is it “Pitch Perfect”?
No. No it most certainly is not.
While on the surface this piece is bursting with verve and energy, it’s also bursting with oppression and negative stereotypes about Asian women. Circling the periphery of this romp are the dragon ladies and geishas, hardly speaking English and when they do, only at a whisper. Just what was going on here?
In Joyful Noise, we didn’t even have time to discuss the homicide of the only Asian American member of the choir, and yet the treatment of the Asian American women trapped in this film is far worse. That’s right, the Asian women in Pitch Perfect would be better off dead.
Sick mash-ups though.
Triumph: 2. A hollow triumph if there is any to be found in this entry.
A strange diversion in many ways from the structure set forth by many of its predecessors (notice the conspicuous lack of clapping in the choir’s regional performance in the clip above), Les Miserables is still a notable entry in this list not so much because of the vocal talents of its cast, but for being precisely about the lack of vocal talent in its cast. A choir made up of people who can’t sing? Talk about triumph.
Despite its somewhat unusual conceit, Les Miserables still contains the same tropes as many on this list. A school nerd (Anne Hathaway) granted a startling makeover early in the movie, a love triangle between Karen from Mean Girls, a British exchange student and a “total slut,” and of course the implausible yet satisfying win at Regionals. It may be that implausibility (and the breezy choreography) that make this movie so much fun to watch.
There are no Asians in this movie at all.
Triumph: 7. Would probably feel more triumphant if the crowd clapped along with their regionals song.
Joel Kim Booster is a comedian and writer living in Brooklyn and deep down really just wants everyone to like him.