Julie and the Phantoms review – a grungy, nostalgic 90s songfest | Television & radio

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A show for young teenagers that all the family can – genuinely – enjoy together. It must be the trickiest proposition in television. An overly sanitised depiction of this troubled time of life will fool no one, but lean too heavily on the sex, drugs ’n’ social media and you will fall foul of parental veto and probably be too cringe-making to comfortably watch together on the sofa, anyway (see HBO’s Euphoria).

So Netflix might just be on to something with Julie and the Phantoms, a sweet show carefully confected to unite every post-Saved By the Bell generation of TV-watching teens, from the My So Called Lifers (now in their 40s) to the High School Musical heads (late 20s).

Indeed it is High School Musical’s Kenny Ortega and David Lawrence (director and composer, respectively), who have re-teamed for this new series, a supernatural fantasy with songs, based on the Brazilian hit Julie e os Fantasmas. The mega-talented newcomer Madison Reyes stars as Julie, a high-schooler in present-day Los Angeles, whose severe case of creative block is about to get her kicked off her school’s competitive music programme. In a dejected state, she heads into her late mother’s art studio, idly puts on an old CD she finds there, and inadvertently summons the spirits of three 90s-era bandmates.

Luke (Charlie Gillespie), Reggie (Jeremy Shada) and Alex (Owen Joyner) of Sunset Curve are the most puppyish punk rockers to ever put hand to guitar and thus it wasn’t a speedball which did them in, it was dodgy hotdogs. These were unwisely purchased from a street vendor and wolfed down during a break from rehearsal for what was supposed to be their big-break gig. Meanwhile a fourth band member, Bobby, stayed behind to chat up the young lady on the merch stand and presumably survived.

The timings are important here: the boys were 17 in 1995, when they passed over to the ghostly realm, making them perfectly placed to bridge the generation gap between a teenage TV audience and their parents, but also between Julie and her dad (played by the unfortunately named former telenovela heartthrob Carlos Ponce). No one is expecting painstaking period detail in a show like this, but they get the most important stuff right, namely that every fanciable boy circa 1995 had a curtains haircut à la Paul Nicholls in EastEnders.

The teenagers in Julie and the Phantoms are not like real teenagers, of course. They are too clear of skin and pure of heart for that. But nor do they wear the rictus grins of Mickey Mouse Club inmates, already weary showbiz veterans by the age of 11. What this show offers instead are some wholesome and attainable role models. True, the mutually supportive bants of Sunset Curve are like no 17-year-olds’ bants I’ve ever heard (“Alex, could you just own your awesomeness, for once?”), but wouldn’t it be nice if young men did lift each other up a bit more? Amid the hectic onslaught of self-harm-promoting TikToks, government-exacerbated exam stress, and Covid closures that make up a 2020s adolescence, Julie and the Phantoms feels like a healthy pause.

Your average too-cool-for-school 15-year-old will find plenty to sneer at, but challenge them to sit through Julie’s first solo musical number, a piano ballad at the end of the first episode, with dry eyes. The lyrics are written from the perspective of a dead mother offering encouragement to her grieving daughter and it’s a genuinely moving moment, in an Alicia Keys-meets-Carole King way. It suggests that whatever the songs may lack in cutting-edge credibility, they will make up for with heartfelt emotion.

Some respect too, please, for Julie and her best pal Flynn’s sense of style. Their everyday look involves dungarees with one strap undone, friendship bracelets up to the elbow and some excellent oversized monster-feet slippers. It’s very Blossom and Six, actually – remember Blossom? – and would inspire a thousand fawning fashion spreads in Just Seventeen, Sugar or Elle Girl, were any of these illustrious titles still in print.

Julie and the Phantoms harks back to a happier, simpler time but, hopefully, not in a way that today’s young people find obnoxiously oblivious to their current crises. It is tough being a teen and TV is supposed to offer an easy means of momentary escape. If it can help buttress some of those well-worn intergenerational bonds at the same time, so much the better.

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