The fate of the movie musical always seems to rest on the shoulders of the latest splashy song-and-dance film to hit the multiplex. Chicago's Oscars announced that the musical had made a comeback. The Producers' creative and cultural misfire implied that no, maybe not. Hairspray's positive reception hints that the pendulum is on the upswing.
If you're interested in the future of movie musicals, you may be looking in the wrong place. The art house is becoming the true incubator for movie-musical innovation. Hedwig and the Angry Inch offered a bracing hit of glam rock and gender politics, while the current Irish pop romance Once has become a sleeper hit. Director Richard Wong's Colma: The Musical's scruffy energy confirms that indie musicals have enormous potential, even though Colma's execution doesn't live up to its promise.
Colma is a small town in Northern California that, as the song "Colma Stays" suggests, is to San Francisco what New Jersey is to New York City: an unglamorous, suburban wasteland. Best pals Billy (Jake Moreno), Rodel (H.P. Mendoza) and Maribel (L.A. Renigen) mostly sing the song as they walk along different streets, separated by location but united in split-screen effects. "Colma Stays" features a catchy melody worthy of a 1980s pop group like the Jam, with some witty rhymes: "Colma stays, fast as a tortoise/Colma stays, like rigor mortis."
The film peaks with its opening number, and the plot, alas, turns out to be nearly as sleepy as the town. Just out of high school, the three friends juggle mundane problems with love and work while killing time during the summer. Billy juggles his job as a "retail bitch" with his theater ambitions, Rodel contemplates coming out to his hostile father, and Maribel gets some fake IDs and mostly plays sidekick to the other two.
Mendoza wrote the script as well as the film's music and lyrics, and at times shows insight into his generation's zeitgeist. In the Broadway-style number "Could We Get Any Older," Rodel mocks a party of college kids for clinging to youth and reflexively laughing at anything "quirky and random." In "Mature," Billy's ironic refrain, "We are so mature for our age," suggests just the opposite. A montage of numbers from Billy's stage musical perfectly captures the "black box" limitations of regional theater.
Billy makes rueful sport of being a "quirky second-banana sidekick" in a play, but Colma treats Maribel no better, even though Renigen's vocal clarity and exuberant personality provide some of the film's most appealing moments. While she has the expressiveness you'd want from a musical, Moreno and Mendoza prove to be more inward-focused performers, connecting with the viewers mostly during soft-spoken "emo" numbers such as Mendoza's anguished "Crazy Like Me." And while Moreno's nasal singing voice has an amateurish sincerity, it becomes less endearing as the movie goes on. Their characters become increasingly unsympathetic, stuck in ruts of petty B.S.
Director Wong filmed Colma: The Musical for reportedly $15,000, and you wonder what he and Mendoza could have done with a stronger script and a bigger budget. They clearly have talent and fresh ideas, and Colma features some memorable images of the ennui of suburban crowds, as well as a delicate number that features ghostly couples waltzing in one of the town's many graveyards.
While you wish Colma's characters were more likable and its visual palette more diverse, the film succeeds at taking part in the overture of a new movie movement. Young filmmakers are emerging with highly sophisticated vocabularies of cinematic and musical techniques, just as digital filmmaking overthrows some of the barriers to making movies. A curtain's ready to rise on a revolution in movie musicals.