The rules of the “Julie and the Phantoms” world and its omnipresent afterlife are deeply confusing. In 1995, three members of pop-punk band Sunset Curve die suddenly after eating bad hot dogs (yes). In 2020, they reappear in their old studio, find a living friend in astonished teen Julie (Madison Reyes) and discover that when they play with her, the world can not only hear them, but see them until the moment the music ends. “What kind of ghosts are we?!” one asks in thrilled confusion, to which another replies, “who cares!” And honestly, after watching all nine episodes of this first season, I have to agree. No, none of this makes any sense even within the vague guidelines of mystical nonsense, and sure, their ghost adventures become very silly, very quickly. But who cares! “Julie and the Phantoms” is just fun and adorable enough for none of that to really matter.
Though the series picks up 25 years after Reggie (Jeremy Shada of “Adventure Time”), Alex (Owen Patrick Joyner) and Luke (Charlie Gillepsie) die just hours before the gig of their dreams, it also takes place a year after Julie’s mother died, leaving her daughter restless, grieving and unable to perform the music they loved writing together. Together, though, Sunset Curve and Julie come together to create “Julie and the Phantoms,” an upbeat band that showcases Julie’s enormous voice in a series of splashy musical interludes. (Fair warning: this show’s ridiculously catchy songs can and will haunt you long beyond the closing credits.) In between performances, the guys try to figure out what’s happened to those they knew since they died and what to make of the mysterious ghost in a steampunk top hat (Cheyenne Jackson, using his sharp eyebrows to their most diabolical effect) who’s taken an interest in them and their powers.
Originally a Brazilian series, “Julie and the Phantoms” enlists director and choreographer Kenny Ortega to put his own Technicolor spin on it. There’s no mistaking that this show came from the mind behind “High School Musical” given its aggressively earnest dialogue, eye-poppingly bright 2004 era fashion, uptight blonde diva rival (Savannah Lee May) and romances so chaste that a kiss on the cheek becomes an electrifying event. It’s not surprising given Ortega’s background in choreography that “Julie and the Phantoms” comes most alive during musical set-pieces, and also that the show’s most compelling acting tends to happen during these scenes rather than through the often clunky dialogue. Reyes, for example, is an engaging screen presence in her acting debut, but she’s clearly at her best and most comfortable when singing opposite Gillespie’s earnest heartthrob. A later performance between the two pays direct homage to Ortega’s “Dirty Dancing” choreography, which is more of a reference point for the parents who might be watching than their kids, but Reyes and Gillespie sell it nonetheless.
The light layer of spookiness from its ghost world also gives the show a jolt of “Scooby Doo” style hijinks that keep it from being too saccharine, as it easily could’ve been otherwise. One of the most effective and well-acted subplots belongs to Alex, the sensitive drummer who came out as gay shortly before his death, and his new ghost crush Willie (a very charming Booboo Stewart), a seemingly carefree skater boy who knows more about the afterlife than he lets on.
As the band gets more successful and the ghosts dive deeper into the mythology of their world versus that of “lifers,” the show starts to lose a bit of its initial peppy spark, not to mention the original plot of Julie’s grief. But it’s hard to begrudge “Julie and the Phantoms” even when it hits its themes home with a sledgehammer. It’s not trying to be subtle; it’s just trying to be nice and fun, and on that front, it more than earns its applause.
“Julie and the Phantoms” premieres September 10 on Netflix. 30 minutes. (9 episodes; all reviewed.)
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