Welcome to “Friday Favorites” which highlight some of my favorite movie-related things.
High School Musical is the sort of film that feels like it was made just for me. I’m sure everyone has a couple of those, that feel like the opening credits should contain the words “This one’s for you!” When I first saw it I was living alone in California, and at the time I watched a lot of the Disney Channel. I would always catch pieces of it, previews for it, or song clips from it, but it was almost a year after it premiered before I finally caught it in its entirety, and I was immediately sucked in. (I went out the next day, bought the DVD, and watched it two more times that night.)
It was the opening song that caught my attention, but what cemented the movie in my brain was the character of Kelsi. I’ve always been interested in the idea of the “storyteller” in the movie. Not every film has one while some have more than one, and sometimes the storyteller is simply the protagonist. The storyteller is the equivalent of a narrator in a film without a narrator. They are the ones from whose perspective the story is told. If we were to imagine the film to be the equivalent of a story told around a campfire (or at a bar or with friends over a bottle of wine), then what we’re seeing is the story as told by the storyteller. Classic examples are R2-D2 and C-3PO, Samwise Gamgee, Jack Sparrow (though that one is debatable) and Tinkerbell (in Hook).
Kelsi is the storyteller in High School Musical. She’s the observer of events, and also in some ways the facilitator of them. She’s like Troy and Gabriella’s guardian angel, enabling the growth they require as protagonists. It helps that Kelsi is also seemingly the only character in the first film who is comfortable with who she is. While other characters need to grow to see beyond the “Status Quo,” Kelsi is already marching to the beat of her own metronome. As the in-movie composer of the songs the characters are singing, she accompanies Troy and Gabriella as they sing their climactic duet at the final callback auditions for the lead roles in the musical, and this leads to my favorite moment. Watch the song below, my favorite moment is at 2:55:
It’s the moment when Kelsi kicks away the piano bench and sings along with the bridge of “Breaking Free.” It’s the sort of feeling that any music lover can relate to, where the music inside of you just bursts out, even if you’re not the one singing. Most other movies would simply cut to her for a reaction shot, looking on with pride as the stars sing her song, but not High School Musical. Perhaps it’s part of the film’s spirit of inclusion, or because director Kenny Ortega really liked Kelsi, but regardless, having Troy and Gabriella come over to sing with Kelsi and to make her a part of this moment is a brilliant stroke.
Troy, earlier in the film, referred to Kelsi as “the playmaker,” the one who makes everyone else look good, which is oversimplifying things. She’s the catalyst, the one who encourages and brings people together. Without Kelsi there would be no High School Musical. But so few movies acknowledge characters in this way, giving them a share of the spotlight in the big finale. Even though she has very few lines, Olesya Rulin shines in this moment, kicking away that bench and sings out with joy and pride. It’s a small thing, but it’s one of my all time favorite moments (and it’s the one that initially inspired me to start this weekly feature).