Grief doesn't come with a simple list of directions. Rather, it is a roadmap with many different twists and turns and without an estimated arrival time. In the new Netflix series Julie and the Phantoms, it has been a year since Julie's (Madison Reyes) mother passed away, and the teenager is understandably still experiencing a complex array of emotions tied to this traumatic event. In the first episode, it is revealed that she hasn't sung or played the piano throughout the grieving process. Music is intrinsically linked to her mother, and to sing is a painful reminder of the person who is no longer there. But when three cute 17-year-old ghosts appear in her mom's studio space, the spark that Julie has lost is reignited.
Music is a balm for many, which provides an outlet for an array of emotions. The playlist of our lives includes songs associated with first love, first heartbreak, and other important relationships. The opening bars of a track can instantly send you spinning back to a different time and place. This emotional time machine can provide comfort, but it is not impervious to pain. Because Julie's love and aptitude for musical performance are inherently bound to her mother, she has struggled to partake in this passion since her passing. Julie's failure to perform a piece in class means she will lose her art school spot. The wound she bears is still too raw to play — even with ramifications as severe as this.
Spoilers for Julie and the Phantoms ahead.
Devised in 1969, the five stages of grief model first appeared in Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's book On Death and Dying. Her findings were based on terminally ill patients but this process has since been applied to a variety of losses and is now part of the everyday lexicon. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are the five emotions that make up the familiar concept. The accuracy of this model has been disputed and these different stages don't necessarily occur uniformly. No model is perfect, particularly when humans are capable of feeling more than one emotion at any given time. In some respects, Julie is still very much in the denial stage as she is still putting off any kind of activity associated with her mom. In an attempt to nudge his daughter toward acceptance, Julie's dad asks her to clear out the studio space because they are selling the family home — he thinks this will make things easier for the kids to get a fresh start. Little does he know that a life-changing encounter with three dead teenagers is going to reconnect Julie to her mother and to the activity she has been avoiding.
Luke (Charlie Gillespie), Alex (Owen Patrick Joyner), and Reggie (Jeremy Shada) are better known as Sunset Curve, a band on the edge of stardom who died tragically in 1995 on the night of their big Orpheum gig. The last 25 years has barely felt like an hour — they spent this time in a room with a sobbing Alex — and it comes as a surprise to see their stuff in the loft space of the makeshift studio. They have acknowledged their ghostly state but the news that a quarter of a century has slipped away is harder to process. Picking up their instruments it becomes clear that while only Julie can see them, everyone can hear the music they are playing. This unique scenario is spun further because when Julie sings with the band formerly known as Sunset Curve, they become visible to all.
"We all felt alive again" is how lead singer Luke explains the feeling of picking up their instruments in their corporeal form. Music can act as a remembrance or even resurrection, which is exactly what they experience during the impromptu jam session. To Luke and his bandmates, it is a salvation, but their new friend has a bigger obstacle to surmount. The piano had once given Julie her voice, but to return to that seat is to confront the person who is no longer showing her the way. As a songwriter and piano teacher, her mother laid the foundation, which includes the song she couldn't bring herself to perform at school.
An earlier conversion with her dad has opened the door. He explains that a reminder does not have to be painful. "Every time I see you and Carlos, I see Mom. It's like she is right here with us. But you know what? I love that. I do. And maybe if you'd give yourself a chance, you'll get there."
"Wake Up" is the name of the first episode and Julie's abandoned recital song title. A note on the music from her mom tells her "Julie, you can do it" with a heart as punctuation. In the closing sequence of the pilot, she does just this, performing the incredibly catchy and meaningful song to an empty room. She isn't alone, her dad and younger brother can hear the once familiar joyful sound, and her new ghost pals linger behind her. In a later episode, she will describe how returning to the piano and song has made her feel much closer to her mom. "It's not what you lost, It's what you'll gain raising your voice to the rain" — these lyrics make a strong case for the power of song.
Tracks dedicated to best friends and another mother make up the soundtrack tapestry of the Julie and the Phantoms setlist, which puts as much weight on these intimate relationships as it does crushes. Julie's bond with bestie Flynn (Jadah Marie) is tested by the arrival of the ghosts because it isn't easy to explain this unique development without causing alarm. As Julie's biggest champion, Flynn is pro-Phantoms as bandmates and supports this creative endeavor. She also encourages her BFF to go through the trunk that contains her mother's clothes and to wear the cool garments contained within. As the season progresses, Julie dives into the vintage threads and starts wearing pieces from her mom's collection. Music is not the only way to keep a legacy alive or feel close to a person who is no longer here, clothing can have this effect too. This physical connection is a reminder of this loss, but it also makes her feel good to wear something imbued with so much meaning — and her mom had very good taste.
"I know how hard it is when you want to speak to someone you love and can't. I feel that way every day," Julie tells Luke on the doorstep of his parents' house. She isn't the only one to have lost someone and the guys are confronted with how much has changed in the second episode when Reggie discovers his neighborhood is now commercial buildings. Luke is defensive, telling Reggie his parents were "literally a fight away from a divorce" and that Alex's parents were "never cool again after you told them you were gay."
His reason for being so cagey is because he left his mom and dad on bad terms when they objected to his career choice. He never had the chance to make it up to them before he died and he is haunted by his last fight with his mom. Alex and Reggie tell Julie that he has been visiting his former home and just sits in sad silence watching his parents.
"Unsaid Emily" is a song Luke wrote for his mom — this show is a good reminder that not all love songs are romantic — which Julie can share with her under the pretense that she found it while sorting out the contents of the studio. "You help me feel more connected to my mom. I wanted to do the same thing for you," Julie tells her friend about her motives for this visit. It is a gut-wrenching scene that can't bring Luke back, but it acts as an apology he cannot deliver. It is a teary exchange, but his mother smiles through her anguish. This gift from beyond the grave is a joyous moment.
The bond between Luke and Julie is more than a crush to make up one side of a love triangle because the story gives their friendship space to thrive and grow. The tween-friendly material — including this pairing — is incredibly charming while also delivering a nuanced portrayal of the complex grief process. "Relight that spark time to come out of the dark," she sings in the first episode, a sentiment that requires repeat listening. Rather than a quick fix, Julie's return to her passion is not depicted as a cure for her pain. In a year that has so far been filled with profound loss and turmoil, Julie and the Phantoms is a reminder that joy and sorrow can co-exist.