Raise Your Voice

You have the BEST voice I have ever HEARD!
Sean McNamara
Hilary Duff, Oliver James, Jason Ritter, John Corbett, Rebecca DeMornay
The Setup: 
Small-town girl has to follow her dream to be a singer at an exclusive arts program in L.A.

This was always on my list, I even wanted to get WASTED and see it in the theater, but my friends were justifiably skeptical, and it never happened. Then recently I have become totally enamored of Hilary's "The Best of My Heart" single [first-rate vapid-but-rockin' teen pop] and video, which made this film rocket to the top of my list. Then I popped it in and popped it back out after a mere 8 minutes—it was THAT repugnant. But eventually I went back and watched the whole thing, and am SO glad I did because I got quite a few MASSIVE chortles out of it.

We begin with our heroine singing "Joy to the World" in her choir class. If you notice, Hilary [her character is Terri, but come on] is the only blonde, and while everyone else is just basically staring ahead as they sing, Hilary is ACTING—that is, looking all around the room, tossing her head this way, then that, smiling, looking over here, looking over there…. This choir group is GETTING DOWN to the simple joy of song, and PLEASE do not miss the moment when the fat schlub choir teacher turns around and pumps his pointed finger at they get to the "make sweet love to you" line [below]. I do not need that thought and that visual brought together in my mind, thank you. Then it's to the family barbeque, where REBECCA DE MORNAY [!!!] as Aunt Nina is on hand to sling snot at her brother, Hilary's dad, about not letting Hilary go to this music program in L.A., because she's his "special girl," and he knows full well that she'll be a bukkake slut for meth within four minutes of arriving in the big, evil city. Then Hilary's brother Paul shows up, and incurs some parental wrath from Doofus Dad over his not allowing Hilary to follow her heart—and her DREAM—in the music program. It was at the conclusion of this scene that I turned the movie off, 8 minutes in, and plunged my head into the full bathtub in order to end my life. It is with shame that I report, dear reader, that I did not have the fortitude to go through with it. And it's a good thing I didn't, because the rest of this atrocity is a fucking HOOT, and not the wholly complete argument for the immediate destruction of Western civilization that the first 8 minutes make it seem like.

Okay, so next Hilary is composing in her chamber, when her brother comes in with the video camera to document this auspicious turning point in the history of music, catching Hilary singing in her wispy, airy voice, and composing such lyrics as "There's a light in me and it's shining bright… I can almost touch the sky." She then turns away to write it down, because bitches, inspiration like that does not come along every day. It is fleeting, so elusive, so divine. Her brother, who is played by Jason Ritter, son of John [and who bears a strong resemblance] keeps taping her, as she sings, then goes to his computer, edits it all together, and secretly sends it off to the music study program! Now, it's only been a few minutes in, but it's quite palpable that Paul is OBSESSED with his sister to a degree that I for one am NOT comfortable with. Brothers that are THAT obsessed and adoring of their sisters need to be bought a Playboy magazine and given a stern but encouraging talking to—or bought a Honcho magazine and sent to live with Uncle Peyton in the West Village. Pete gives Hilary a cross pendant and chain as a graduation present [remember this], and then Hilary whips out some Three Days' Grace concert tickets for THAT NIGHT [and you're like "Wait a minute—isn't it like 11:30 PM?"] but Paul is grounded [for sassin' his daddy] and Hilary suggests that they steal the Ford Pinto [so not kidding] and head off anyway, which they DO! On the way comes the first line of dialogue that had me laughing so hard my stomach muscles hurt and I had to turn the movie off: When Paul turns to Hilary, who sings in the currently-popular fashion of breathy, airy voices that sound like asthmatic mice, and says "Terri, you've got the best voice I've ever heard!"

Okay, now I can tell right now that this review is going to be LONG, because not only is there so much amazingly wrong with this movie, there are like LAYERS of wrongness, falsity built upon falsity, so much that it all simply cannot be processed! So they arrive at the Three Days Grace concert. Now, as you may know, this is a CHRISTIAN rock band, and as the movie goes on, we will continue to see this whole thread of trying-to-be-sly Christian content. It's like what people say about the Bush administration: that they're speaking in code to appeal to Christians, but other people wouldn't pick up on it. This movie's a little bit like that, which we'll talk about later. The first bit of this, however, is that the movie tries to float the idea that there are a bunch of kids out there PSYCHED at seeing Three Days Grace. Hilary gasps "Oh my God!" upon her first sight of the band, because she is so amazed to be, like, IN THEIR PRESENCE. Now, either the filmmakers have never been to an actual rock concert in their lives, or Christian Rock concerts really are different, because the crowd is all standing with at least two feet of space between each person, the concertgoers don't mind if you shove your way to stand directly in front of them, and the guy next to you will be perfectly happy to help your sister get a better view by supporting her weight on his shoulders. Poor, undertalented director Sean McCormack then launches into a whole lot of dated music video techniques to capture the hot God-rock sound, during which time we notice that poor Hilary cannot really rock. She just stands there in the audience, arms thrusting forward to the beat while her body remains steadfastly impervious to the beat.

On the way home, Hilary and Pete are rocking to the beat when a car hits them! We next see Hilary coming out of a COMA! She is interviewed by this sweetie doctor who tries to ask her questions to asses her mental stability while her ignorant asshole dad interferes. My favorite moment here is when Hilary starts to cry and Dad shoves the doctor aside, saying "Stop it! Whatever it is you're doing to her!" Well, you fucking knob, he's shining a penlight into her eyes, not some kind of highaflutin' doctor voodoo!

After a short "healing" montage, Hilary opens her mailbox and gets a letter saying she was accepted to the music program. She throws it out but her mother [played by Tom Hanks' wife Rita Wilson], who apparently makes it her business to rifle through Hilary's trash, finds it and, along with Aunt Nina, insists that she go. They're going to tell Dad that she's staying with Nina, when in fact she's in L.A.! We find out that Hilary feels terrible because it was HER idea to sneak Paul out that night, and now she also feels terrible, because she's about to LIE to her parents! Oh my God, can you BELIEVE that? Anyway, soon enough she's arriving in L.A. and taking a rather extensive cab ride across the city to her school, causing me to think: "So they arranged all her housing and food and got all the paperwork done and all without dad knowing a thing?" I guess. Now Hilary's in the big city, which causes her to exclaim "Oh my gosh!" We do not take the Lord's name in vain in our semi-Christian movies, thank you very much.

The next day approximately 40 students gather in a large hall where a string quartet is playing. One can never be sure exactly how many students are in this school, as we only focus on Hilary's friends and just see various numbers of people hanging out in the background. The cellist of the quartet, who just happens to have long hair, a beard, and is wearing a leather vest and leather pants WITH A LACE-UP CROTCH gets up and starts playing rock bass on his instrument. He's ROCKING THE CLASSICS! The quartet IS the staff of the school. This is a special summer program at "the best music school in the country" [that is a direct quote, we will discuss this very soon], and at the end one student will be chosen to receive a ten thousand dollar scholarship to attend the school in the fall. The teacher in the leather pants is Mr. Torvald, played by John Corbett of Northern Exposure and the husband in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Here he kept reminding me of "the Dude" from Big Lebowski, but I must admit with great reluctance that he is a pretty good actor, it's just that he has to do such horribly degrading stuff here.

Okay, now a section that also had my in hysterics, which is where the kids bring their instruments—bongos, hip-hip 'scratching' equipment, drum sets, guitars—and set up in the courtyard to JAM. There's Jay, the cute hunk we can tell will become Hilary's BF, and his former GF Robin, who is the standard-issue talented teen bitch. Now, I got a massive chortle out of Hilary seeing Jay and saying "Hey Jay, nice hook!" and him responding "Jump in and pick it up!" but then a few seconds later we see Robin and some other girl grooving along going "Hoo! Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo!" and I'm like "What? This elite music conservatory is training these girls to become backup singers?" Well kids, please stay tuned.

So far everyone has been a total bitch to Hilary, especially her black, braided roommate Denise, who informs her that she doesn't get involved with anyone because she's here to win the scholarship and needs to keep her competitive edge. Hilary goes to pitch training, which is a little funny, with her breathy hoot-owl-with-laryngitis voice, then walks down the hallway of practice rooms, looking at this person practicing piano, these people practicing violin [the movie floats the ludicrous idea that classical pianists and such can practice three-to-a-room, all three playing at the same time], those people practicing drums, these people practicing guitar, and then you start to think "You know, when is Hilary going to practice? Like, ever?"

Okay, so we're halfway through our movie, so it's time for the story to arbitrarily 'develop!' First we see Hilary's white hip-hop scratch artist, he's named Kiwi, and think "So, does 'the best music school in the country' REALLY have a hip-hop scratch percussion program?" Then I discovered, at 43 minutes in, that Jay is supposed to be British! And Denise is SUDDENLY like her TOTAL BFF! Denise chides her for being such a goody-goody with her clothes, even though she's constantly dressed like the latest Gap ad, in sizes that cling snugly to her teenage titties. But anyway, everyone is wondering, like, WHY isn't Hilary living up to her true potential? Mr. Torvald wonders "Where is the girl we saw in your DVD?" [the one her brother made that Hilary has no knowledge of]. He shows it to her, saying "Maybe you'll be inspired. I know we were." The video is introduced by her brother, and Hilary is, like, SO emotional upon seeing that—so much so that she must BOLT from the office! But wait—you will notice that there is NO SINGING on the whole 2-minute DVD, just footage of Hilary bopping around her house and tossing her hair adorably. Which means that the "best music school in the country" accepted her into their exclusive program over thousands of other candidates ON THE BASIS OF HOW SHE CLOWNS AROUND THE HOUSE. This is the footage that Torvald found "inspiring." To me, this completely invalidates the movie from any claim of quality or even reason for existing. You may say "It's only a fantasy" or "It's only a movie" or whatever, but to me, if it's going to have such patent bullshit at it's center, the entire movie can never be anything more than sales collateral and teen-product propaganda. In real-world terms, this means that Step Up 2 the Streets has more claim to quality and verisimilitude than this movie.

So Hilary has a fit and is going to run away and leave the school, and during this time—please don your symbolism glasses, thank you—the crucifix that Paul gave her falls off! She has lost her faith! Then Jay shows up and takes her on a date to the Santa Monica pier, where she opens up to him and he tells her that it wasn't her fault and that she has to let go of her guilt. "But Jay!" she wails, "I'm lying to people!" God, someone please get this girl on Heroin or something, so she'll have some real problems.

Anyway, so now it's time for Hilary to start believing in herself and turning her life around, etc. First, please EXPERIENCE the moment as she transitions from singing scales into improvisational white teen gospel scat. It is appalling, but it makes Mr. Torvald all excited, to see her real, raw TALENT. She's also not quite as breathy anymore, but still has no voice to speak of. Okay, now Jay, who also gained entrance over thousands of others nationwide to this elite music academy, is heard sitting at a piano compositing a song that draws on complex rhyme schemes and metrical precision to literally say "You and me… can't ya see…." By this time Denise is on a "Okay girl, so talk to me," basis with Hilary, and then there's some crazy bullshit with maintaining the illusion that Hilary is actually just staying at Aunt Nina's, having to travel all the way there by train before Dad arrives, getting there just in time to greet dad, getting back just in time to go on her double date [wherein they intrude on Denise's street performing set, which ends in a montage on the simple joys of street performance], and one notices that not only is Hilary always arriving just I time or slightly late for something, she never, ever seems to get tired. Maybe she's a cyborg.

Then she and Jay are going to collaborate on their final song, and they go to an open mic night were Hilary practices having an on-stage breakdown, the spotlight reminding her of the headlights of the car that left her with her brother's brain matter spattered all over her face, with a little glob right on her tongue. Then Paul gives her a chain for Paul's crucifix—he is symbolically giving her faith back, that much should be plain—then Robin freaks in class over her jealousy of Hilary and makes a heavy-handed play for Jay. And you are like "No, they're not REALLY going to do the old she-walks-in-just-as-the-girlfriend-is-kissing-him-and-misinterprets-the-whole-thing thing, are they? They would have more shame than that… wouldn't they?" I'm gonna leave that answer for you to discover on your own. I do have to say I liked the disarmingly simple teen behavior of having Hilary run to her room, call herself "stupid," and start ripping pages out of her diary. Blah, blah, eventually Jay comes back, all drunk ["But Jay, why would you DO that? WHY would you drink?"] and they get back together. Then they try to rehearse together and Hilary keeps fucking up, and you at home start to be like: "You know, she really cannot even make it through a song. And this is truly the first time we have ever seen her practice. Yet somehow we're supposed to believe this amazing talent."

Anyway, finally dad discovers the truth and this gives Mrs. Tom Hanks a chance to throw a big Oscar clip, one of those "women are wise and in touch with their emotions and men are big, insensitive, stupid oafs" scenes, but dad, the stupid oaf, is going to drive to L.A. and demand that Hilary come back. Meanwhile, at the school, they're having another 'practicing' montage where we hear classical music but see people playing drums, guitar, and singing.

So it's the big, year-end performance, the one that is going to mean the most to who wins the scholarship! But Hilary cannot perform without her cross—that is, without JESUS—and the one Paul gave to her! This chick has PROBLEMS. She's never going to make it in showbiz with all these tiny little problems popping up all over to prevent her from performing, and yo bitch, how 'bout you BRING your cross if it's so important to you? While this and the next scene are going on, we have the final performances of most of the students. Robin comes out and sings some sassy nightclub-type song about "losing control." Kiwi does some scratch n' sample routine, while the people in the audience nod their heads like "Wow! I guess hip-hop scratch-based sample routines really ARE a vital form of musical expression!" Then Denise comes out with her violin, which she plays in a classics-lite style, until she kicks down the amp and starts ROCKING on the violin! Because, you see, classical music, as it has existed for the past several hundred years, is NOT a viable form of artistic expression. Hello, it's, like, SO boring. SO old. It is completely invalid unless we can make it more like shitty rock! THEN it's worthwhile!

BUT! When Hilary gets to her dorm room, she finds her father there, packing her things! Hilary says "I'm not going with you!" then, one second later, says "Look, you can take me home if you want…" Yeah, that's standing up for yourself, girl! Then she says "Look, I'm performing any minute now…" Pretty casual about the whole thing, is she not? Anyway—you'll never guess—but she convinces her dad to watch her performance! THAT… I could never have seen that coming. Mom's there, too, though I don't know what she was doing while dad was packing Hilary's things—at the vending machines? I think Aunt Nina is there, too.

Anyway, once more Hilary sees the spotlight and is reminded of Paul's tragic death! But… she turns her pain into ART and dedicates the song to Paul! The song is, of course, some complete bullshit about believing in yourself, and you'll notice that even though we only ever saw Hilary and Jay rehearsing, suddenly they are supported by a full rock band—that knows all the music! It was also nice of the performing arts college to have something on hand that allows Hilary to multi-track her voice. But you know, this IS the best music school in the country.

When Hilary finishes her song, the crowd goes INSANE!!! That is, like, SO much better than Beethoven! Maybe Beethoven didn't really believe in himself. Anyway, Dad sees that he has lost his daughter to the devil, disowns her, and takes off with mom, never to see her again. No, silly! He was so moved by her performance, which made him finally see her true talent and the value of arts education—and DREAMS!—and now blah, blah, blah, whatever. Then the winner of the scholarship is announced and—it's Denise! For that SHITTY rock violin crap. But you know, Denise is BLACK, and she has had to work in a GROCERY STORE! That is, actually, about all we learn about her, letting the mere fact that she is black stand in for the fact that she is "from the inner city." I was thinking how admirable it was that the disadvantaged girl won, but then I started thinking, out of pure wickedness, how much I would have loved this movie more if the solidly bourgeois Hilary won and was all "Oh my God! Like, thank you!" while preening insufferably about and we had a shot of Denise and her despondent family getting back on the Greyhound outside. What can I say, I'm REALLY mean. Then Hilary leaves her parents to join in an impromptu JAM session, which features one of those almost-but-not-quite Christian songs about "the walls will tumble" and "the road to Jericho." Then an out-of-control car skids across the campus and Hilary's head is pulverized into a shimmering fine mist of blood and viscera.

There are TOO MANY problems to count! There are layers of falsity built upon layers of falsity! Look, this review thus far is the equivalent of SIX single-spaced typewritten pages, and I have been GLOSSING OVER a great deal of all that is wrong here. The biggest, funniest problem is the concept that this elite arts academy, which is, you recall, "the best music school in the country," aspires above all else to turn out the next generation of Hilary Duff-style wispy-voiced little pop tartresses. It takes years of TRAINING, bitches! We have a few shots interspersed here and there of people playing classical instruments, but it becomes clear after awhile that this school is NOT interested in classical music. They even have a bongo training program! I also love the pure fantasy that the STAFF of this elite school appreciate any and all forms of music expression, including said bongos and scratch percussion. You should see the nod Mr. Torvald gives Hilary during her big number, as if to say "Yeah! That's what I'm TALKING about!" when in fact she's just singing a song that sounds like any other Hilary Duff song, which, even then, is interchangeable with any number of breathy-voiced little non-singers.

Clearly one argument to rebut mine is that the movie is about inspiring young kids—who might otherwise get into DRUGS!—to follow their dreams and get involved in the arts. It's not all about that boring old classical music—and you don't even need talent! And you know that song you made up once accompanied by fart noises made with your hand in your underarm—they have a program for THAT, too! So while some might argue that none of these little details matter, because it's all about inspiration, I would argue back that it may be more demoralizing in the end, when the kids apply to arts colleges and find that "believing in themselves" is no replacement for having rehearsed that Bach suite.

Okay, I've written enough about this bullshit. Plus, I need a quesadilla. Hilary is not as charming as I hoped she would be, based on the Beat of my Heart video, but wasn't quite as repulsive as one might expect [given the opening minutes], and actually handles herself in the serious scenes. Everyone else is negligible, except hot Rebecca MILF-if-I-L-to-F-M's, who inspired me to re-watch tepid 90s "thriller" Guilty as Sin, where she stars against Don Johnson! You see, the arts CAN make a difference.

Should you watch it: 

It depends on whether you find joy in how truly awful a movie can be.