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Series Review: “Julie and the Phantoms” Makes Magic out of Narrative Madness

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 9th, 2020

Film poster: “Julie and the Phantoms”

Julie and the Phantoms (Dan Cross/Dave Hoge = showrunners; Kenny Ortega = director/choreographer/executive producer; Kabir Akhtar/Paul Becker/Kristin Hanggi = other directors) 3½ out of 4 stars.

A wild journey into the explosive delirium of both the supernatural and high-school musicals, the new Netflix series Julie and the Phantoms starts with an untimely tragedy before launching itself into its simultaneously silly and engaging main drama. Episode 1 (out of 9 approximately 30-minute installments) begins in 1995, where a hot young boy band (there were so many, back then) is about to play their first big gig, at Los Angeles’ Orpheum Theatre. Not bad for a bunch of 17-year-olds. Unfortunately for 3 (out of 4) of them, they choose the wrong “street dogs” (i.e., hot dogs from a street vendor) to eat before playing, and so ends the big dream in a bout of fatal indigestion.

Flash forward 25 years, and we meet the titular Julie, a 15-year-old girl who has recently lost her mother, with whom she shared a passion for music, and is only now, as the show unfolds, coming out of a year-long depression. With her anxious father, younger brother, aunt (or “tia,” as the family is Latinx) and best friend Flynn looking out for her, Julie hopes to finally move on, though a choked audition for the school’s music program doesn’t bode well. But then fate, with a ghostly twist, miraculously intervenes.

l-r: Jeremy Shada as Reggie, Owen Joyner as Alex, Madison Reyes as Julie, and Charlie Gillespie as Luke in Episode 101 of JULIE AND THE PHANTOMS. Cr. Kailey Schwerman/Netflix © Netflix

For reasons that will slowly become clear, the deceased members of that opening band, Sunset Curve, suddenly appear one day in a converted garage in Julie’s backyard, a space where her mother used to practice (and which is still set up as a studio). Though they are invisible to everyone else, Julie can see them, and so begins an initially wary friendship between Luke (Charlie Gillespie, Speed Kills), Reggie (Jeremy Shada, the voice of Finn on the Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time), Alex (Owen Joyner, Nickelodeon’s Knight Squad) and our central protagonist (newcomer Madison Reyes). The boys still want to jam after all this time, and Julie secretly wants to, as well, even if she claims otherwise. It certainly helps that, on whatever phantasmagoric grounds, the boys become visible to everyone when they perform, opening a realm of possibilities for all. Will the ghosts therefore be able to help Julie heal and realize her destiny even as she allows them to reclaim theirs? It wouldn’t be much of a good time were none of that on the cinematic table, and since Julie and the Phantoms is most definitely a lot of fun, you may draw your own conclusions.

Executive producer/director/choreographer Kenny Ortega (of High School Musical, and its sequels, fame) works brilliantly with showrunners Dan Cross and Dave Hoge (who together produced the Disney Channel’s Pair of Kings) to keep the magic going even when the world-building falters from inconsistently applied principles. Sometimes our dead musicians do this, sometimes that, and it doesn’t always make sense. But the general sweetness and positive vibe of the show, combined with the powerful representation of its diverse cast, headlined by the marvelous Reyes, makes Julie and the Phantoms work the vast majority of the time, even when, by narrative rights, it shouldn’t.

Cheyenne Jackson as Caleb in Episode 105 of JULIE AND THE PHANTOMS @Netflix

A large part of that is the music, whether sung and performed by Reyes and the guys (who all did their own actual work) or by the vast ensemble (including a fine Cheyenne Jackson, One Night Stand). Beyond the concert-style ballads, we are also treated to delightful dance numbers set in the high school and a 1920s-style nightclub, all of it part of the series ‘often dizzying pace (which certainly helps propel us past the absurdities). The engaging melodies and lyrics are written by an equally large array of talent, providing ample choices of different styles for different viewers. Julie and the Phantoms offers so many audio-visual riches, it’s no wonder that Sunset Curve came back from the dead to sample the treasure.

At the core of this fanciful treat is the raw truth of trauma and its aftermath, however, and though sometimes the actors are pushed into too much excessive earnestness, the series delivers on its promise of catharsis over and over, layering plenty of genuine tears in with the laughter and joy. Whether you are wowed by Reyes, her costars or just the crazy premise, there is sure to be something here that will catch your eye, entrance your ear, tickle your funny bone or move your heart. And with a twist at the end to launch a second season, there just might be more to launch future episodes (COVID-19 willing, of course). Stay tuned …

Madison Reyes as Julie in Episode 104 of JULIE AND THE PHANTOMS. Cr. Kailey Schwerman/Netflix © Netflix
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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