The first thing that appealed to Tyler James Williams about Let It Shine, a charming new Disney Channel movie premiering at 7 p.m. Friday, was the opportunity to be the unlikely romantic lead.
The former Everybody Hates Chris star is essentially a modern-day Cyrano de Bergerac in this musically driven romantic comedy for teens.
Williams plays Cyrus DeBarge, a gifted rapper and musician who writes romantic hip-hop verses, only to stand idly by as they are delivered to the girl of his dreams by a proxy, his best friend. Ultimately, the true poet will have to overcome his self-doubt and seize the opportunity to reveal his authentic self.
In the meantime, Cyrus tries to convince his preacher father that hip-hop music can have a positive message.
"The Cyrano story is a classic," the 19-year-old actor said during a recent visit to North Texas to promote the film. "It's exciting to take that story, re-dress it a little bit, modernize it some, and then introduce that great story to a young audience that might be unfamiliar with it."
When Williams started peeling the layers back on the material, he realized that Let It Shine works on a multitude of levels, not just the one that drew him in.
Some viewers will enjoy it mostly for the catchy hip-hop and rap music, 12 original songs in all. It's Disney Channel's first movie driven by hip-hop and rap.
Others might find inspiration in its uplifting "be yourself" and "believe in yourself" messages.
If a viewer wants to go really deep, Williams says, he can appreciate how neatly the Cyrano story overlays onto the modern-day music industry, which has long had issues involving its use of lip syncing and Auto-Tune sleight of hand.
How often have we wondered, quite simply, if the artist on the CD cover really sang that song?
"In the movie, we show how some of the fakery is done with Auto-Tune on an artist's voice," Williams says. "I say it's good that we're peeling back a few things about the music industry and that we're doing it for a younger generation, so they might start to question some of what they're seeing and hearing.
"Whether it's a matter of 'Oh, they're not really singing that, are they?' or 'That car he drove in the video was great, but you know what? He doesn't really own it,' this is something that needs to be shown."
Then again, viewers can choose to keep it simple and enjoy it as the sweet-natured romantic comedy that it is. Williams is OK with that, too.
Williams' co-stars, Coco Jones (who plays Roxie, his dream girl) and Trevor Jackson (who plays Kris, Cyrus' best friend), who also came to Dallas to promote the movie, say they didn't even know about the Cyrano connection when they auditioned for their roles.
They just liked the story and wanted to be part of it.
"Viewers don't have to know the history behind this movie to enjoy watching it," Jackson says. "But I like the idea that somebody might be interested enough to want to go back and learn more about the original. If that could happen, that would be pretty great."