April 7, 2011

Find your ‘Lemonade Mouth’

Posted in Between Us column, Diversity, Entertainment, Movies, Television, Women at 4:04 am by dinaheng

Any film that has Debra Martin Chase as its producer is bound to have a message.

Fans of “The Princess Diaries,” “The Cheetah Girls,” or “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” franchises, which she also produced, know that her movies are also entertaining, uplifting and celebrate the real meaning of family.

Her newest Disney Channel Original Movie, “Lemonade Mouth,” premieres next week, Friday, April 15 at  8 p.m. Eastern, and looks to be another franchise hit. The film, about a group of disparate high school students whose love of music draws them together to form a powerhouse band, is based on the book “Lemonade Mouth” by Mark Peter Hughes.

“The story is all about believing in yourself, understanding that you have a voice, and that you deserve to be heard,” says Chase, sitting in her Burbank office. “It’s about the importance of friendship, and knowing that all things are possible. Woven into that is the message that everybody deserves to be respected, whether you’re a football player, a chess player, or a singer.”

These messages are shared through the relationships of a rich palette of characters. When Stella Yamada (Hayley Kiyoko), the rebellious new girl in town, finds herself in detention after school, she meets four classmates who are far from total deadbeats.

There’s Olivia White(Bridgit Mendler), a talented singer who must come to terms with an absent father; Wen Gifford (Adam Hicks), who hates his father’s new girlfriend; Mohini “Mo”  Banjaree (Naomi Scott), who’s caught between her immigrant parents’ expectations and her need to truly be herself, and Charlie Delgado, (Blake Michael), who’s trying to escape his older brother’s shadow.

While the movie is aimed at the 8 to 14-year-old audience, the challenges facing the characters are ones that everyone will relate to.

“Eight to 14 is when you’re finding out how complicated the world is,” Chase says. “You’re coming into your own as an individual, and figuring out that you have a voice. There are so many images kids today are bombarded with. The pressure at school is so much more, the pressure to look a certain way and the competition is so intense.”

As the five friends begin to express themselves through music, they urge fellow classmates to act when they don’t like what’s going on around them, getting them in trouble with a school principal who just doesn’t get it. As the students deal with a rival band, they have to face their own differences and personal dilemmas.

The film stays true to the book’s messages, but a few changes were made for the teleplay. Originally set in Rhode Island, the movie was filmed in New Mexico, and takes place in the southwest. One character’s twin, who died at birth in the book, is not mentioned in the film.

Like most Disney Channel movies, diversity is writ large in the casting, which strengthens the storytelling and appeals to a wider audience.

“Diversity is hugely important for the Disney Channel, and for me,” says Chase, one of the most successful African-American producers in Hollywood. “We were looking for the best talent, with an eye toward diversity, and spent three months in an international search for the kids. Naomi’s character Mo, in the book, is all Indian, as she is in the film. Naomi was in London and auditioned through a teleconference because we were in such a time crunch.

“Hayley (Kiyoko) was a find. We wanted one of the kids to be Latino or black. Blake (Michael) sent a tape in from Atlanta. The Disney Channel does big regional auditions from time to time, so someone had laid eyes on him. The script was written by a woman, April Blair, and we had a fantastic female director, Patricia Riggen.”

The group gels as an ensemble cast and as the rock band that becomes the voice for a  generation. More than 80 songs were submitted by top songwriters around the world for inclusion in the film, with 9 making the final cut.

Martin’s first “Cheetah Girls” movie was the first Disney Channel film to come out with a soundtrack, in response to requests from parents who wanted an album. The subsequent success of “High School Musical” and “Camp Rock” soundtracks helped to cement the popularity of musicals for today’s kids.

The producer says the songs in “Lemonade Mouth” clearly carry the messages of the film.

“ ‘She’s So Gone’ is an anthem about female empowerment,” Martin says. “ ‘Somebody’ makes me tear up. It’s tough to make movies that aren’t action or male comedy now. Everybody’s looking for the big tent-pole films. Making films about female empowerment is tough, but it could not be more needed than now.”




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