Kenny Ortega, you son of a ghoul: You’ve done it again. Netflix’s Julie and the Phantoms is the kind of series only the man behind High School Musical and Hocus Pocus could make. It might seem like a kids’ show about a teen who rediscovers her love of music, but under the surface lurks a tale of three ghost boys learning the horrors of immortal classism… lured by the siren song of Cheyenne Jackson.
Julie and the Phantoms is a new series from Dan Cross and Dave Hoge, executive produced by Ortega. Based on the Brazilian series Julie e os Fantasmas, the show stars Madison Reyes as Julie, a young woman who lost her love of music after her mother died. Everything changes after she meets three ghost boys — Luke (Charlie Gillespie), Alex (Owen Joyner), and Reggie (Jeremy Shada) — who were about to make it big with their band, Sunset Curve, before dying from eating bad hot dogs. By the way, they were all teenagers when this happened, which is horrible…and kinda got glossed over more than I was comfortable with.
Julie’s the only one who can see or interact with the ghost boys, which leads to predictable ghost-boy-and-human-girl shenanigans. There is one exception: when they all perform together. This inspires Julie and her ghost boys to form a band, Julie and the Phantoms, so the boys can relive the glory days of singing family-friendly rock songs about following your dreams. I’ll admit the songs are catchy (with a few exceptions, like the abysmal “The Band Is Back”), and all the kids are so talented it makes you hate yourself for being old. But much like the tracks from High School Musical, ZOMBIES, and Descendants, most of them aren’t about anything. It’s all vague Disney-fied odes to being true to yourself. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially for kids. It just gets repetitive.
Most of Julie’s storyline follows a predictable pattern. Julie is nervous about something; the ghost boys help her feel confident again; they perform a sweet song together. She’s also got the support of her best friend, Flynn (Descendants 3’s Jadah Marie), who is the only person Julie reveals her secret ghost band to. Combined, they’re a living (and un-living) life coach collective. The ghost boys are more like a ghost pep team, there to love and support Julie (and Julie alone). It can give it some harem anime vibes (albeit filtered through an extremely G-rated lens), but it’s nice to see a group of young men supporting a woman’s dreams — even if they’re ghost boys.
There is a potential love triangle between Julie, Luke, and Julie’s former crush Nick (Sacha Carlson). It’s not very interesting but it does give us one of the cutest songs of the season, “Perfect Harmony,” which was actually co-written by Reyes and Gillespie (mainly because they wanted their own High School Musical romantic number). The other, more engaging romance involves Alex and another ghost named Willie (Descendants’ Booboo Stewart). It’s the first time an Ortega production has prominently featured a same-sex couple, something that feels welcome and long overdue.
But that’s only part of the story. Hidden underneath the inspirational talks, jam sessions, and ‘90s fashion lies a second television show — one that’s way more fascinating and doesn’t get nearly enough screen time. You see, the ghost boys don’t spend all their time supporting Julie’s dreams of becoming a famous singer. Sometime in the middle of the season, they realise they’ve got afterlife dreams of their own, mainly getting revenge against someone who screwed them over after they’d died. This thirst for vengeance brings them to the doorstep of Caleb Covington, played by the effervescent Cheyenne Jackson (American Horror Story: Roanoke, Watchmen).
Caleb the Magician is the deceased proprietor of the Hollywood Ghost Club, a place where the rich and powerful pay big bucks to mingle with ghosts…and guarantee club membership in the hereafter. Caleb also takes his show around the world, indicating that there are international Ghost Clubs too. If you think about this for more than a second, it will melt your brain. This show about a teenager who forms a band with ghosts is also about a secret cabal of wealthy elites who know what happens when you die. Not only are they hiding it from the general population, they’re also paying money to guarantee their spot in the afterlife. I know this is a ridiculous kids show, but holy shit. That’s bleak.
Gifted with the ability to make ghosts visible to the “lifers,” Caleb entertains the crowd (and the ghost boys) with the greatest number of the season, “The Other Side of Hollywood.” It’s showstopping banger, dripping in rhinestones, with solid lyrics, amazing choreography, and so much Old Hollywood glam. Jackson is a veteran Broadway actor who recently stretched his vocal cords as Hades in Descendants 3, but here he’s given full rein and range. I watched it twice because I couldn’t get enough of it. Hell, I’m tempted to put it on again right now. But that’s kind of the purpose, as it tempts the ghost boys to pair up with Caleb instead of continuing to work with Julie.
Of course, the moral of the story is that music will always bring people together. Julie gains the confidence to perform, the ghost boys find the courage to stand up for what they believe in, and everyone walks away on the promise of a brighter tomorrow. The season ends on a cliffhanger that hints at where things could go in a second season, but also comes across as a bit hasty and rushed. It made me wonder whether it was originally designed to be a limited series, but got rewritten with a new ending once Netflix saw its potential. Because Julie and the Phantoms does have potential to be a big hit with families. It has a lot of heart, along with some great musical numbers. And, apart from the whole “rich people know about ghosts” thing, it’s harmless fun. Julie and the Phantoms won’t change your life, but it will give you something to sing about.
- Julie and the Phantoms has its own Sharpay in the form of Carrie (Savannah Lee May), the lead singer of a girl group called Dirty Candy. Early on, it seemed like the show was trying to go for a more nuanced character — she talked about how hard she’d worked to get into the music program that Julie, because of her family tragedy, continually flaked out on. But that was quickly abandoned in favour of typical “mean girl” who sings song about how much she loves herself. It was disappointing.
- I’m sorry to report that the ghost boys aren’t the best actors. Every scene they’re in feels like bad high school theatre, as they act around folks who have to pretend not to see them.
- Episode four starts with a totally out-of-place musical number that feels straight out of High School Musical. Julie and her classmates sing, dance, and rap (?!) through the hallways to a song about how they’ve “got the music” inside of them. Turns out it was a fantasy sequence, but that doesn’t excuse a number that feels solely added for kids to do cheer numbers to in middle school. Sigh…you can take Kenny Ortega out of East High, but you can’t take East High out of Kenny Ortega.
- I can’t say how much I appreciate Julie and the Phantoms using rock-pop music. Today’s kid musicals usually feature dubstep, a la ZOMBIES and Descendants, so it was a relief to have music that didn’t make me hate myself. Plus, one of the ghost boys had a Mesa stack! That’s the brand I used back in the day — when I had a ghost band. Minus the ghost.
- The ‘90s fashion is, as we used to say, “off the chain.” Not just from the ghost boys, from all the characters. Are today’s teens dressing up this much in ‘90s throwback threads? I honestly don’t know, but I shouldn’t have thrown all those chain wallets away.
Julie and the Phantoms debuts on Netflix September 10.