Arguably the most known and noteworthy DCOM (Disney Channel Original Movies) is a little film trilogy known as ‘High School Musical’. For its generations, and one’s following this movie proves to still be highly relevant as it adores musical playlists and even sparked an interest in musical theater for many. The only other film series that might have the same recognition would be ‘Descendants’.
Outside of the obvious factors of being major success for the network and falling into the musical genre; what else do the two series have in common. Or rather who would be a better choice of wording, and that would be Kenny Ortega. Ortega has proved to be a jack-of-all trades when it comes to the stage and screen, notably to the musical series mentioned. And as of recent another musical project has been added to the roster- Julie and the Phantoms.
Based on a Brazilian series, this new nine episode musical series has arrived on Netflix. Despite being rated for general audiences, Julie and the Phantom proves to be far more mature and deep than what you would see on major networks. With a heavy focus on grief, loss, acceptance, moving on and letting go, Julie and the Phantom hits emotional cords and resonates so well. And was I shocked to discover this.
As usual, spoilers below:
The series follows that of our titular character, Julie. It has been a year after her mother’s passing and she still is in a state of grieving and even that of depression as she struggles to move past her loss. Despite having the talent and love for music, her sadness has left her disconnected with what she loves most and unable to even play.
Not only is she struggling with her emotional state, along with her father and brother that also are working their way though their own grief. Notably she nearly forces a ‘happy’ face of sorts before her well-meaning aunt- along with the rest of her family.
Dealing with any type of grief regardless of a timeline is beyond trying, coupled with the normal day-to-day and life can become a nightmare fast. (Believe me, I know this.) And things do become even more complicated as she finds herself removed from her music program and plugged with self-doubt if she even wants to move forward with music and if she can or even wants to overcome her block.
Yet somehow things get even harder and supernatural as three ghosts show up in her mother’s studio that only she can see and communicate with properly.
It was 1995 and what was supposed to be the best and biggest night of their lives turned out to be their last for Luke, Alex and Reggie. Thanks to a unfortunate innocent with hotdogs they go from hyping up their live to oddly finding themselves in the studio at Julie’s home as ghosts. Despite having a major time gap of 25 years and conflicts with the only person who can see them Julie and the boys are able to come together by chance on stage and create something amazing- Julie and the Phantoms.
The series hits the boxes for an endearing coming-of-age story without being genetic. We do see conflicts with Julie and her friends, rival and family as well as the ghost. The true heart of the series in the core focus of what happens following death- to the living and not so living.
Julie struggles to push past her grief and sadness of her mother’s passing as she slowly starts to pick up the pieces and move forward. Dealing with the near fear of having people close to her not being there for her and the fear of losing ones she holds close.
For Alex, Luke and Reggie things are more complicated- then again they do say dying changes things. With fiction rarely focusing on characters in a limbo state we never really have seen this direction taken. The reality that nearly three decades of their lives are gone, everything they knew is no longer and their families are still there- and they can only look in is painful.
We see this last one the hardest for Luke who is haunted by her final encounter with his family and carrying penned up feelings and words unsaid for so long, with no actual way to convey them. Of the three in the band trio we see the most focus and development with Luke not only in regards to his past, but also his growing and developing relationship with Julie. A relationship skewed with forming love-triangle involving Julie’s long time crush Nick.
Speaking of relationships, we see a budding romance between Alex and fellow ghost Willie (played by Booboo Steward, because I know there are fangirls over this.). Despite having a very sweet and grounded relationship, Willie inadvertently causes the greatest conflict of the series.
I believe the phrase, “the path to hell is paved in good intentions’ really summaries the events leading up our main conflict and villain of the series. Upon discovering their former- only actual living- band mate plagiarized Luke’s music and rose to fame with no mention of his friends’ efforts. The boys seek out a way to get revenge face-to-face (without playing their music).
This leads to an invitation to an elite club and meeting with Caleb, a ghost with his own agenda and eyes fixed on the boys. Captivated by their ‘magic’ to appear before the living when they play music, he is fixated on them becoming his house band. Loyal to Julie and their band together, they reject such an offer- but unwilling to accept a decline Caleb leaves his mark on the ghost and forces them into a corner. Continue being shocked and have their energy sucked out of them until they are no more and no longer exist, accept his offer or the loop-hole, complete their ‘unfinished business’ and crossover.
The choice is hard, but clear to everyone that the only thing they can really do is push forward with their all and achieve their previous life goal of performing at the Orpheum before their time runs out.
Going in knowing that Ortega was leading this had set the bar quite high and really left me aware of where I could confidently place my expectations. Yet I found myself surprised by the direction that Julie and the Phantoms took. You can tell very quickly that this series departs from the mold we saw in HSM and Descendants. The narrative itself feels more mature as it doesn’t dance around just how heavy the series themes are and embraces some of the messy emotions that arise.
Rather than having characters feeling larger than life and over the top, minus Caleb, everyone feels relatively organic and grounded. Normally parents in series like this feel very hollow, but even Julie’s dad feels genuine and their relationship almost feels like a modern father-daughter take on the relationship we see in Gilmore Girls if you take out the pop culture references and coffee addiction. I will complain that we did see Reggie and the brother pushed a little more to the side than I was hoping for. Assuming we see additional seasons I hope we get a little more development on them.
Despite being a theater girl, I love how the series deviated from a more traditional musical structure and almost in the vein of Love Live (if you seen my Twitter feed you know this reference was coming) seen most of the musical numbers being performed in more strategic places that helped moved the narrative rather than, say just used to tell character’s feelings. All of the music was really amazing and the lyrics really dig deep into the character’s emotions and continued to tie in with the themes at hand.
The actual ending of the series left me with more questions than anything as it is hard to guess how this will affect the story moving forward.
There is likely not any questioning if the series will get any more seasons, it seems to be more of a question of when. Given everything that is currently ongoing I assume that we might have a longer delay than we would otherwise be looking at. Overall Julie and the Phantoms was more than I was expecting and will be awaiting more. Not everyone might have musical pursuits, and be hanging out with ghosts. Yet the reliability of grief and just how much it resonates speaks volumes.