Date of airing: April 15, 2011 (Disney Channel)
Nielsen ratings information: 5.693 million viewers, 3.0/5 in Households, 1.0/3 with Adults 18-49, 4.8/20 with Teens 12-17, 6.9/24 with Kids 2-11, 2.3 million viewers with Kids 6-11, 2.1 million viewers with Tweens 9-14
In my travels through the Disney+ app, I found this little gem of a film that I didn’t even know existed, even though I was quite fond of Bridgit Mendler during my watch of GOOD LUCK CHARLIE, which may not be the best Disney Channel family sitcom the network has to offer, but certainly the most consistent and finest. But here is a television film that tries its absolute best to be very much unlike any other Disney Channel Original Movie, yet puts all the effort into being one anyway. It’s the film that takes its initial rebellious message to heart: Be heard, be strong, be proud. It’s the message that turns into the morale not just for the characters, who grow up from being nobodies in the American high school system to pop-rock superstars, but also for the film itself, which wants to be seen as something more unique among the Disney Channel crowd of family sitcoms, teenage relationships with the fewest on-screen kisses, and soundstage productions that never leave the walls of the studio and never risk anything. LEMONADE MOUTH could have been the beginning of the network risking something in the film and story department by being more honest with how America looks like. With an Indian-American and an Asian-American cast member among the five leads, LEMONADE MOUTH is already overrepresented compared to other Disney Channel productions, and with a story that involves parents who have died, are divorced, or are currently residing in prison, it’s almost like the network really tried hard to write “representation” with a capital R, but not without losing the sense of Disney commercialism and capitalism too much.
LEMONADE MOUTH starts off like any other teenage high school comedy drama attempting to catch the spirit of THE BREAKFAST CLUB: Five teens who aren’t considered famous for high school standards find each other in detention, they realize they have a talent in common — making music — and decide, after getting over the hurdles of stage fright and panic of becoming someone else than the parental units would have hoped, to become a band first, then friends, and then make the metamorphosis into rebellious leaders with a record deal and a chart-topping hit, placing them straight into the world of capitalism that essentially kills the rebellious nature they were discovered with. In the meantime, the teens still have to go through the trials and tribulations and messes of being a teenager in a Disney Channel production: Some fall in love with the other, some have to deal with the parents and their inability to really see and accept their kids, and there are idiotic and obnoxious snobs on the other side of the school ground who think they are better than the members of the titular band and cannot wait to tell everyone that exact fact. Because the five leads of the story can’t just be famous band members after they decided to form a band — there still has to be conflict and character drama, and when you look at other Disney Channel productions, LEMONADE MOUTH may have enough drama to get a shot at being more than just a Disney Channel Original Movie. And that begs the question if the film, based on the novel by Mark Peter Hughes, was initially developed for a film studio, or if Disney even planned to theatrically release it before random production and budget issues turned it into a one-night television event with some of the hottest teen stars Hollywood had to offer in 2011.
LEMONADE MOUTH had a lot of elements working for me, and my thoughts of this film potentially being one of my favorites before I pressed the play button were vindicated. After considering features like HEARTS BEAT LOUD, BEGIN AGAIN, SING STREET and GOD HELP THE GIRL (yes, even the pretentious indie movie directed by Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch) as my go-to favorites when I am in need of an optimistic pick-me-up musical with character depth to it, as well as my general love for musicals, LEMONADE MOUTH seemed like the best film to watch on a cold December night when I needed some new music in my ear, in addition to Hollywood forcing myself back on Spotify to look for music I just listened to and watched (“Determinate” is instantly becoming my new favorite obsession for the next few days). The band musical comedy drama is close to becoming one of my favorite genres, making me just a little sad that there aren’t more of them out there and that they usually aren’t ready for sequels. The Disney Channel tried to monetize on the success of LEMONADE MOUTH, which according to Nielsen Media Research is a film that repeats incredibly well, even landing in the weekly Top 10 in the children’s target demos three years after its premiere airing (airings on August 5th and 6th in 2014 had 929k and 940k viewers respectively among kids between 6 and 11), but never figured outlaw to make a franchise out of it. A trilogy of films exists because PITCH PERFECT was an unexpected success, so the Disney Channel could have made something out of LEMONADE MOUTH. My heart would have thanked the studio eight years later for that.
But LEMONADE MOUTH also worked when it comes to the narrative. Characters are troubled and needed to find out where they are in life before turning into pop-rock superstars, and it was most evident in Olivia’s character arc — her mother has died, her father is in prison for an unspecified crime, and the Disney Channel suddenly has a teenage character with actual problems actual “heartland Americans” are probably dealing with. Almost the same can be said for Mohini’s experience with her strict parents of Indian heritage, who may have been portrayed in a stereotypical fashion, but then again, it’s something Lilly Singh repeatedly jokes about on her television show, so I’m going to assume that Indian parents of Indian-American teens trying to be Westerners are really this strict and walled-off from progressive ways of life. The studio may have problems bringing representation into their works — “Representation matters” is a term J.J. Abrams hoped to write big and colourful on every board visible with the release of STAR WARS: EPISODE IX – THE RISE OF SKYWALKER, but it turns out that witnessing a two-second-long kiss between two women characters who have been nothing but minor players in the story, without an ounce of back story, is not what “representation matters” means and it’s something Disney has to be told over and over. LEMONADE MOUTH doesn’t move the wheel in that regard either, but at least the studio’s basic cable television channel is trying. Granted, there were no LGBTQ voices in these two hours, but as long as the cast is diverse and the characters don’t look like they come straight from the future world of white-collar riches, I can accept the other (many) faults of the studio’s fictional offerings.
All this does not mean that LEMONADE MOUTH should be heavily criticized for the shortcomings of one studio. The sound is still great, the character relations are wonderful, the fact that there wasn’t much of a romance novel in the story made it easier for someone like me, who does not know love, to follow the narrative and bite my teeth into one of the other premises. And yes, LEMONADE MOUTH is the fifth film on a very shortlist of films about folks who get together to make music and turn their life around for the better, which means there is an entire handful of films with the same premise that can fill a day of binge-watching when I’m sad about life.