Julie and the Phantoms is Netflix’s remake of the 2011 Brazilian television show, Julie e os Fantasmas. The 2020 American version follows a high schooler named Julie, played by Madison Reyes, trying to cope with her mother’s passing. They shared a love of music and with the loss of her mother, Julie can’t bring herself to sing again. That is, until one day she accidentally awakens the spirits of 3 former teenage bandmates who died in 1995: Luke (played by Charlie Gillespie), Alex (played by Owen Patrick Joyner), and Reggie (played by Jeremy Shada). She’s the only one who can see them and they see her as an opportunity to let their music be heard again and find a second chance at fulfilling their life’s purpose. With her new band, Julie finds the confidence to sing again and go after her dreams.
The show comes from Kenny Ortega, of Hocus Pocus and High School Musical fame. Like his other works, it is primarily geared towards a younger audience, specifically preteens. Most shows catering towards this demographic face significant obstacles, some of which Julie and the Phantoms overcomes and some which it succumbs to. Overacting is the worst offender in the genre and the show suffers from it at times. Although the issue is not specific to any one actor, the wholistic experience isn’t ruined. The writing is stiff at times or too obvious, but for the most part, it works.
While most of Ortega’s recent works were constricted by budgets meant for children’s network television, Julie and the Phantoms sees an increase in production quality. It’s bright and colorful and it especially shines when embracing grandiose musical sequences. It also has costuming that is more forward-thinking and embraces current trends, especially the popularity of the crop top. Each character has a consistent wardrobe and is styled to their personality without it feeling repetitive or bland. This is also the first time Ortega, a gay man, is able to bring an explicitly gay character to life within this genre, something that is thankfully becoming more common. It was also important for Ortega to have the show led by a Latina and have that representation through Julie and her family.
Most TV shows for younger audiences follow an episodic structure where the plot is defined by a major conflict contained within a single episode and it is topped off with a moral at the end. That isn’t to say that there cannot be a season-wide arc, but it’s clear that the central plot of one episode functions nearly independently from the other. Julie and the Phantoms is structured more as a serial plot where each episode directly leads into the next. A few of the 9 total episodes focus around a lesson, but the plot is structured more as a natural progression of learning and growing along with the characters. This gives the series a fresher feel than others in the category and the chance to incorporate more nuanced storytelling and subplots.
While the bulk of the runtime is dedicated to Julie’s journey, the band also goes through their own struggles, as a group and individually. Alex, who is openly gay, is wound tight and finds comradery (or perhaps budding ghostmance) with fellow ghost Willie, played by Booboo Stewart. Luke grows closer with Julie as they write songs together and he works through unresolved regrets postmortem. The romance between them is awkward. While the boys in the band are meant to be in their teenage years, the actors who play them are around 20 while Reyes was around 16 at the time of filming. In the series, Julie has another potential love interest who is much closer in age and he looks it. That makes the age difference between Reyes and Gillespie even clearer and the entire ordeal slightly uncomfortable. There is a bigger age difference between Booboo Stewart and Owen Joyner, six years, but they look similar enough in age and maturity that it isn’t striking. Unfortunately, Reggie is not given a subplot and neither is Julie’s best friend. Both seem only to exist to support the other leads and have little autonomy on their own, something that will hopefully be fixed in later seasons.
The strongest parts of the show are the chemistry between the characters. Julie and the Phantoms underwent an involved casting search to find the band members and a national talent search to find its lead. All of the songs are performed by the actors and Maddison Reyes particularly impresses with a powerful voice. They all work together as a band very well and the comedic chemistry between them feels natural. The soundtrack to the show is energetic and performed wonderfully. The songs, dare I say, are bops. They’re enjoyable to listen to and most have inspirational undertones that just feel good.
Julie and the Phantoms is a fun show to watch. Even if you’re not in the target age demographic, there’s something to enjoy about it. It suffers from some faults at the hands of the script and overacting, but not enough to squander the experience. When things get tense and emotional, it’s handled well but the true strength of the show, as with most of Ortega’s work, is the tangibility of the interactions between the characters, especially the sweeter moments. And if anything, at least stream the soundtrack when it comes out.