Perhaps the only nonzombie movie in recent memory in which the dead outnumber the living, Colma: The Musical did not appear to be a hot prospect when it premiered at last year’s San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. A musical suburban-youth angstfest made locally on a shoestring, starring and produced by no one you’ve heard of? A movie originally intended to be an indie concept album and a stage show? It is the nature of such things to be cute in theory and adorable in execution but only if one is friends with the cast and crew. If not, it might prompt the type of frozen smile reserved for requests such as "Will you go with me to see my old college roomie play Evita?"
The high energy at the packed Kabuki Cinema for Colma‘s first big screening didn’t necessarily raise my expectations. So the cast and crew have a lot of friends, I thought. Add a decent percentage of the burg of Colma’s approximately 2,000 current residents hey, I’d go see anything named after my hometown too and indulgence could be counted on, no matter how lame or amateurish the movie turned out to be.
It’s normal to go a little nuts when something you expected to be so-so at best emerges as totally ingratiating instead. The worthy underdog is usually a little overrated; one current case in point is another movie musical, Once. But in the case of Colma: The Musical, over the past 15 months a number of newspaper writers and people at subsequent festivals have been as surprised and delighted as I was at that first screening. Now Richard Wong’s movie is at a theater near you at least in San Francisco, with New York City and Los Angeles showings soon to come and it’s possible it could become a feel-good sleeper around the nation. Like, well, Once.
Almost everywhere anyone grows up seems like Deadsville at the time, boredom being the glue that holds adolescence together. But of course in Colma, the Bay Area’s ruling burial site (breathing-to-decomposing ratio: 1 to 1,500), that notion is redundant. The protagonists of Colma: The Musical are three best friends who’ve just finished high school and have no idea what they’ll do with the rest of the week, let alone the rest of their lives. Equal parts awkward and deadpan, they love and torture one another as if going through naturally spazzy growth spurts.
Jug-eared Billy (Jake Moreno) is a wannabe actor and serial monogamist with the attention span of a gnat, so his head-over-heels crushes come as fast as reprises of the ironically titled lovesick song "Mature." His parents are weird, but at least they’re trying hard to relate to him, unlike the militarily stern widower dad of Rodel (scenarist, composer, and lyricist H.P. Mendoza), who does not react well when his son’s crackhead secret ex-boyfriend reveals Junior is a ‘mo. Much like Rodel, Maribel (L.A. Renigen) is privately crushing on Billy. Even though she’s an aspiring slut, she’s probably the most grounded of the three.
Crises happen, feelings are hurt, and production numbers are born. Two particularly resourceful, near-spectacular highlights of this $15,000 production are the drunken barroom kiss-off "Goodbye Stupid" and "Deadwalking," a wistful lament sung by Maribel and Rodel while innumerable white-gowned ladies and black-tied men waltz through one of Colma’s oldest cemeteries. The sassy humor at play is perhaps best defined by Mendoza piping the tune "One Day" to a car-alarm accompaniment. But nothing is quite so exhilarating as the opener, "Colma Stays" ("like rigor mortis"), a snarky anthem that introduces the Bay Area, the movie’s lead characters, and Colma‘s droll tenor in a sugar rush of split-screen, lip-synching joy.
Colma: The Musical was shot on mini-DV in a widescreen format, and in his first directorial feature, cinematographer-editor Wong already knows how to fill the screen and cut images to music with a genius simplicity that shames most Hollywood (even MTV) veterans. The filmic energy ideally complements performances that are deadpanned to perfect al dente density.
Irresistible at first listen, Colma: The Musical‘s songs haven’t held up quite as well as I’d hoped over the last year’s repeat listens on CD. But as someone who still treasures the ’80s college rock likes of Game Theory, Let’s Active, They Might Be Giants, and subsequent torch carriers, I’ll happily note that a musical that sounds like those groups rather than the usual bad MOR (a description applicable even to the pseudosoulful Dreamgirls and the garish top 40 pastiche Moulin Rouge) is a step in the right direction.
On the other hand, the movie has improved. Clocking in at a generous 113 minutes during its festival travels, Colma: The Musical has since been tightened to a lean 95 without losing poignancy, hilarity, or nuance. "Listen, things got outta hand, things were said, basically everybody’s at fault here," Rodel quasi-apologizes at a late point after an instance of much interpersonal ado about basically nada. The makers of Colma, by contrast, have made something remarkable from almost nothing. Their film is as sweet, funny, and dweeb-pop catchy as anything you’re going to see this year.*
COLMA: THE MUSICAL
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