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Wednesday, March 10, 2021

March 10, 2021: Spring Break Films: From Justin to Kelly

[Like many universities, Fitchburg State cancelled Spring Break for this academic year. But that doesn’t mean we can’t jet off to Daytona Beach in our imaginations, with the help of the Spring Break films I’ll AmericanStudy this week. Share your own Spring Break texts or contexts for a crowd-sourced weekend post that’ll have a little umbrella in its drink!]

On what wasn’t new about the historic beach bomb, and what was.

Full disclosure: I haven’t seen more than a few clips of From Justin to Kelly (2003), the movie Wikipedia notes “is often regarded as one of the worst movies ever made” and that received a 2005 Razzie for “Worst ‘Musical’ of Our First 25 Years” (their delightful scare quotes). Thanks to a Twitter recommendation from AJ Schmitz I did listen to the How Did This Get Made? episode on the film, which I’m quite sure was far more enjoyable than the movie would have been. You might nonetheless argue that I shouldn’t be writing a blog post on a movie I haven’t watched, and I’d understand that critique (evidence-based analyzer that I try to be)—but life is too short to spend 81 minutes watching From Justin to Kelly; and in any case my plan for this post is to analyze not all the nuances of this text (probably should have used scare quotes of my own for both of those last couple nouns), but rather to use it to engage a couple of pop culture contexts.

For one thing, the Spring Break-set From Justin to Kelly, featuring the “acting” debuts (couldn’t resist that time) of American Idol’s first season winner and runner-up Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini (I’m sure I could find a YouTube clip to hyperlink there, but I like you all too much to do that to you), is part of a long tradition of sub-par beach films starring teen idol-type actors. I’m thinking in particular about the many, many films inspired by Sandra Dee’s 1959 hit movie Gidget; as I wrote in that post Gidget isn’t terrible (although I think its popularity was due more to a bunch of beautiful bodies making surfing look good than any cinematic strengths), but it doesn’t seem that we can say the same of the majority of the more than 30 “beach party films” that were greenlit after Gidget’s success and were released in the five years after 1963’s Beach Party. These films often starred attractive, popular young stars like Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, and, like From Justin to Kelly, were more or less excuses to put those folks on the beach and hope that young audiences would want to join them there enough to overlook the absence of plots, compelling characters, or the like. That legacy doesn’t make From Justin to Kelly any better, but it does make it make a bit more sense.

On the other hand, Avalon and Funicello may not have been Olivier and Hepburn, but they were established actors, performers who had appeared in multiple films before their beach partying days. Guarini and Clarkson were cast in a film immediately after their time on American Idol, and because of that time—Clarkson in particular has noted that she didn’t want to make the film but was contractually obligated to do so. I’m not someone who believes that reality TV is an entirely or even consistently negative cultural presence (certain reality TV presidents notwithstanding), but I think it’s fair to say that the track record of reality TV stars going on to meaningful success in any other arena (or even in their own arena—Clarkson is one of only a few music-show stars to achieve a lasting career in the field) is a mixed one at best. You might say that even the most talented screen performers couldn’t have saved From Justin to Kelly, but I believe the more accurate frame is quite distinct: that this thoroughly forgettable film would never have been made at all if it weren’t for the goal of producing a vehicle for these two reality TV contestants. This is one Spring Break story that should have stayed broken.

Next Spring Break film tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Responses to this film or other Spring Break texts you’d share?

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