REVIEW: Julie and the Phantoms, Season 1

Julie and the Phantoms

Julie and the Phantoms is fantastic!

Based on the Brazilian series Julie e os Fantasmas, the nine-episode series is Netflix’s entry into the Disney Channel Original Movie genre, particularly the High School Musical sub-genre (not surprising since HSM director Kenny Ortega himself is the showrunner), and it is everything you expect it to be and more.

Julie and the PhantomsJulie and the Phantoms follows the adventures of singer-songwriter Julie who accidentally releases the ghosts of three members of the 90’s era band, Sunset Curve. Lead vocalist and guitarist Luke (Charlie Gillespie), bassist Reggie (Jeremy Shada), and drummer Alex (Owen Patrick Joyner)  died 25 years ago after an unfortunate case of food poisoning via street hotdogs (you read that right), minutes before they were meant to play a big gig that would have launched their careers.

After the boys get over the shock of re-entering the world more than two decades later and after Julie resigns herself to the idea that ghosts exist, they form a band, bonded by their love for music.

Despite the strange premise, Julie and the Phantoms works so well because it has a lot of heart. The characters are portrayed with a balance of humor and seriousness even as they have to deal with some ludicrous scenarios. Early on in the series, they discover that the boys are visible and audible to other people when they play music with Julie and she hastily explains their existence as a “hologram band from Sweden” and flimsy as the explanation is, people just go with it anyway.

And that’s the best way to enjoy the show, really, to take the crazy premise as it is and then allow yourself to be drawn into these characters’ lives (or after-lives) and then be moved by the wonderful music. The soundtrack is full of catchy and feel-good tunes that are the perfect genre for these trying times. Each song is an impressive production number sometimes complete with lively and elaborate choreography and colorful costumes and sometimes performed in an understated but effective manner.

Julie and the PhantomsJulie is the driving force of the show and the phenomenally talented Reyes shines as a musical prodigy reeling from the death of her mother. Her grief is palpable and it has taken its toll on what used to bond her and her mother – music. But the arrival of the phantoms re-ignites her love for music and so begins their journey towards healing and triumph.

Julie and the PhantomsThere is also something refreshing about the portrayal of the three phantoms. There isn’t any of the toxic masculinity one might expect from such characters and instead, these three guys are allowed to express their emotions often and openly and the show doesn’t play this for laughs. Luke, Reggie, and Alex are all unabashedly supportive of each other and consistently show how strong their found family is, a bond reinforced when Julie joins them. While they struggle to adjust to modern times, sometimes to hilarious effect, they are still mostly glad to have the opportunity to keep making music.

Julie and the PhantomsJulie and the Phantoms also has a solid supporting cast of characters, most of whom form Julie’s network of family and friends – Carlos Ponce as her supportive dad, Ray; Sonny Bustamante as her inquisitive younger brother, Carlos; Alison Araya as her well-meaning Tia Victoria, and Jadah Marie as Flynn, Julie’s best friend and confidante.

There are the usual character types expected of any musical teen series such as Julie’s crush Nick (Sacha Carlson) and her rival, Carrie (Savannah May), the latter getting to perform a couple of show-stopping tunes during the show. While the rivalry between two female singers trope is so tired, there seems a little bit more to Carrie and Julie’s relationship than this, given that they used to be good friends. And Carrie’s reaction to Julie’s final performance gives me hope that the next season will show a different side to this dynamic.

Carrie also happens to be the daughter of Trevor Wilson, who turns out to be Bobby, the only surviving member of Sunset Curve. There is a subplot involving Bobby’s stealing the band’s songs for his own success and though the phantoms do try to address this for a while, it remains unresolved at the end of the season. Hopefully, they revisit this fascinating thread up in future episodes.

The show also manages to explore the themes of grief and loss in surprisingly profound ways, with Julie’s mourning for her mother and the boys’ dealing with returning to a world they had left behind. Luke, in particular, goes through an emotionally complex arc that involves trying to reconcile with his parents. And I dare anyone not to shed a tear when he performs a heartbreaking song in the penultimate episode of the season.

Julie and the PhantomsAnother surprising and refreshing element of Julie and the Phantoms is the way it portrays a canon LGBTQ character. Early in the series, the boys explicitly mention that Alex is gay and it never becomes a joke or his defining characteristic. His sexuality is acknowledged and accepted by the characters. And just as the show develops a potential romance between Luke and Julie (as complicated as this will certainly become), it also sets up an adorable romance between Alex and fellow ghost, Willie (played by Booboo Stewart.)

Julie and the PhantomsThough the supernatural shenanigans can get a bit silly at times, the afterlife twist does serve to create some interesting stakes that distinguish Julie and the Phantoms from the usual high school musical shows and provides opportunities for some unique worldbuilding. And it also gives the series an excuse to introduce a campy villain like Caleb Covington (played with gusto by Broadway vet Cheyenne Jackson), a shady ghost nightclub owner who has an eye on the boys’ strange powers. Caleb puts on showy cabaret-style numbers while also threatening the boys’ already precarious existence.

In a show where unfinished business serves as pivotal plot points, the first season of Julie and the Phantoms leaves some loose ends. The finale leaves a couple of truly intriguing cliffhangers that are enough to hook us in for another season. But even without these, the show has established the characters enough that you just want to watch them keep making music together.

Julie and the Phantoms manages to combine familiar elements in a unique package that still resonates with audience because of its heart. The cast is charming and incredibly talented as they perform more than a dozen songs throughout the fast-paced first season. For all its strange twists, the show is ultimately about the healing and transcendental power of music.

And though it’s only just begun, the show is already standing on the edge of great!