WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
Julie is a teenage girl who lost her passion for music after the death of her mother. She learns to embrace her music again when the ghosts of three teen boys appear in her garage to help her form a band.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
When High School Musical aired in 2006, it was a cultural reset. A film for tweens and children that seemed to captivate people of all ages around the world. So Netflix knew what they were doing when they signed a multi-year deal with High School Musical director Kenny Ortega.
For three decades, Ortega has been a part of some of the biggest musicals and teen content. From choreographing Dirty Dancing and Ferris Bueller's Day Off to directing The Cheetah Girls and The Descendants franchise, Ortega has always been on the pulse of teen musicals that enthral a generation, and this is no exception.
And a lot of the first season of Julie and the Phantoms will remind you of the Ortega's previous Disney projects, but there is something so special and polished about this production that I think it will live on in the minds of the audience long after the screen is switched off. Based on the Brazilian series Julie e os Fantasmas, it tells the story of Julie (Madison Reyes), a teenager who lost her passion for music after the death of her mother. But while cleaning out her garage, she finds a CD which she plays, and in a second three teenage boys appear in her garage.
The boys were members of a band called Sunset Curve that died in 1995 – lead singer and songwriter Luke (Charlie Gillespie), drummer Alex (Owen Joyner) and bass player Reggie (Jeremy Shada). The band is surprised to find out that they had been dead for 25 years, and now appear as ghosts only visible by Julie except for when they perform with Julie and then they are seen by everyone who watches. Through playing with the boys, Julie finds her love for music again and shines as she should.
A problem that I usually found with Disney Channel content is that the plotlines were too simplistic. And that is perhaps because it is aimed for children and tweens, but Julie and the Phantoms shows that you can combine popular themes like the journey to stardom, fantasy and high school mean girls, with some real emotions that young people deal with. It also had a solid storyline that spans the nine episodes of the season. Once I started the first episode, I could not switch it off, and I continued to watch all the episodes in one sitting. In many ways, it serves more as a nine-part film than a series.
One of the biggest overarching themes of the series is grief. Similarly to Never Have I Ever, another teen Netflix series, Julie and the Phantoms introduces us to the main character after her mother has already died. But the grief seems to overcome Julie, so much so that she can't perform music because music is what she associates with her mother. And the series is a journey for her to learn how to use music as a way to connect with and remember her mother.
The series also follows the band members as they also deal with grief – the death of their dreams, learning that the world (and their families) had left them behind, and having to deal with their current situation as ghosts. This is especially depicted in the eighth episode when Luke has to deal with unresolved issues between him and his parents. To say I cried during this episode would be an understatement, I bawled. Between the music, and the characters' acting, and when you think how tragic it is to die when you're only 17 and just on the cusp of having your dreams come true.
And honestly, I adored the music. They weren't just fun songs; they were really good. The lyrics had a lot of heart, and the tunes were catchy, and something that would not sound out of place on the radio. It is sort of like a mix of Alessia Cara and Dua Lipa. Even the music that was made by Julie's enemy, Carrie (Savannah May) is so good. And even though the music is based on what is happening in the scenes (it is a musical after all), it doesn't feel as on the nose as a lot of the other Disney songs.
The casting of Madison Reyes was one of the biggest anchors of this show. Reyes is an actual 15-year-old, and this is her first role, but she is incredibly talented and carries the show entirely. I dare you to listen to her singing and not feel some form of emotion. She is a powerhouse and Julie and the Phantoms is such a great launching pad for what I hope will be an amazing career.
The boys in the band seem like the most solid link to Disney shows. They reminded me a lot of the first season of Jonas with them acting similarly to the way the Jonas Brothers acted in there – with a Generation Z twist. The boys might have come from the 90s, but nothing other than their fashion sense will remind you of teens from that era. But it somehow works, there are just enough 90s aesthetics to make the Gen-Xers and the millennials nostalgic, but not enough to alienate the younger generations.
I naturally thought I would perhaps like one of the boys and find the other two annoying, but that wasn't the case – I loved all three of them. They were all so positive and encouraging towards each other and Julie, and the banter between them was hilarious. Although the comedy might be broad, it was incredibly wholesome to see this type of positivity from teen boys onscreen (I'm looking at you Euphoria).
Another thing that I enjoyed was that Alex, one of the band members, is gay and this isn't treated as a plot point or something that is a problem. His band members know he is gay and it doesn't bother anyone else. There is a comment that is made about his family not being okay with the fact that he is gay, but they don't go into this in any detail.
Alex also starts a romance with another ghost that he meets called Willie (Booboo Stewart) and even though we can see that Julie has a crush on Luke, the romance between Alex and Willie is the one that gets the most development in season one. It is adorable and lovely, and I can't wait to see what will happen in season 2.
It also is just nice to see a healthy, cute LGBTQ romance in a tween show, there have been so many inferred queer characters in Nickelodeon, and Disney shows that it is great that we are moving past this. I wish that we could go back in time and give Ryan and Chad from High School Musical the romance that they deserved.
The one gripe that I had with the series was that it tried to put too much into one season. The main antagonist is Caleb Covington (Cheyenne Jackson), a ghost of a magician from the early 20th century who owns the Hollywood Ghost Club, a place where humans can see ghosts. Caleb's attempts to get the boys to be a part of his band and the nefarious ways he tries to do this leads to the climax of the first season.
However this is not the only thing the band has to deal with: there is a meddling aunt, a ghost-hunting little brother, the former band member that stole their songs, a mean girl trying to upstage Julie and a possible love triangle. It's too much, and I often found myself getting annoyed when time in the episodes were wasted on one of these side plots instead of moving along with the main plot.
However, I still thoroughly enjoyed the show, and I am excited to see what they will do with season two if Netflix blesses us with one. This is a great show to watch with the entire family as it has entertaining moments for younger children, relatable ones for tweens and won't make older teens and adults cringe.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: