Repo! The Genetic Opera
Film Length:97 minutes
Release Date: January 20, 2009
Who woulda thunk we would have not one, but two, Grand Guignol operatic films released within a few months of each other, both featuring haunted heroes bent on revenge after their wives have died, and each seeking that revenge by slicing and dicing their way through various humans on their way to their personal nirvana? Of course the better known of the two, Sweeney Todd, is, at least in its original theatrical form, an undisputed masterpiece from the most undisputed master of American musical theatre, Stephen Sondheim, working at the apex of his pseudo-operatic powers (not all that pseudo, when you get right down to it). If the film version may not have been quite the event the original stage production was, it nonetheless had its own distinctive, bloody charms.
Coming in the wake of Sweeney Todd is the ambitious, if overly mannered and musically underwhelming Repo! The Genetic Opera, a piece that began as a short-form 10 minute mini-musical on the alternative stages of Los Angeles, and then, as in all things truly Tinsel Town, got greenlit for a film version helmed by Darren Lynn Bousman, veteran of several Saw franchise sequels. Any film that pairs Sarah Brightman with Paris Hilton has got to be handed its deserved props, at least for casting cojones, but the fact is Repo offers a distinctive (to say the least) premise that is augmented by an audacious production design even as it’s occasionally hampered by a score that relies too much on one or two bar motifs which are endlessly repeated in any given song.
Repo! (and as any musical theater freak will tell you, anything with an exclamation point in its title is a musical, not an opera) posits a world several decades in the future, when mankind is on the verge of annihilation due to a horrible epidemic. Enter GeneCo, a helpful little company that provides body organs for a “reasonable” price. Unfortunately, if you don’t keep up your payments, you then get a visit from GeneCo’s Repo Man, who in this case doesn’t hesitate to cut a wide swath through your body, sans anesthesia, to reclaim your intestines, kidneys, heart or whatever else you purchased on credit.
The plot of Repo! revolves around GeneCo’s founder, Rotti Largo (a surprisingly nimble Paul Sorvino, who, if he wasn’t dubbed, reveals an impressively powerful tenor when he lets loose and belts) and Largo’s chief Repo Man, Nathan Wallace (Anthony Stewart Head). Head is an amazingly good singer as he’s proven previously in such fare as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and CD releases, and his long history of theatrical musical roles serves him extremely well here (he is in fact the brother of Murray Head, whose name lovers of rock opera will recognize from the original recording of Jesus Christ Superstar--a show co-written by Brightman’s ex, Andrew Lloyd Webber. I in fact had to wonder how the film version of Mamma Mia! might have fared with the critics had Head been one of Meryl Streep’s three suitors instead of the less than vocally gifted males who ended up in the film.
As in any good opera, we have a trans-generational saga, as it turns out Nathan married a woman who had once been betrothed to Largo. I won’t burden you with spoiler details, other than to say the woman perished, leaving Nathan a puppet of sorts in Largo’s nefarious hands. Added to this mélange is Nathan’s daughter, Shilo (Alexa Vega), who is suffering from a blood disease that Largo claims he can cure, as well as this culture’s singing superstar, Blind Mag (Brightman), who it turns out (not very surprisingly) has connections to both Largo and Nathan in her past. Hilton is on hand as one of Largo’s three narcissistic children (perfect typecasting, I’m sure you’re all saying), all of whom are counting the seconds until Largo shuffles off this mortal coil so that they can inherit the goldmine that is GeneCo. Brightman, Sorvino and Head easily come off the best in the acting arena, with Brightman and Head taking the singing honors (as might be expected), though Zdunich is likable in a role that’s also somewhat redolent of Joel Grey’s Emcee in Cabaret (down to the pancake makeup). Vega is fine, if never as compelling as she might be, most of which I lay at the feet of the libretto, which gives her little to work with. It is interesting to compare Vega’s Shilo with Sweeney Todd’s Johanna—both are the daughters of recklessly vengeful fathers, and both are kept prisoner in rooms from which they observe the world through a window. (Look for Joan Jett in a cameo in Vega’s big “grrl power” production number). Hilton proves that the old adage “don’t give up your day job” only applies to those who have day jobs.
Creators Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich have stated they were aiming for a sort of filmic cross between Rocky Horror and Blade Runner, and both of those influences are clearly seen in Repo!. The film is anchored by a sort of Frank N. Furter-ish narrator, the Graverobber (played by Zdunich), and the production design, full of floating and flying screens full of multilingual advertisements, is clearly based on Blade Runner. Where Repo! doesn’t admirably mimic Rocky Horror is in an accessible score. There’s actually quite a bit to like in Repo!’s thrash-metal leanings, which are interspersed with all too brief respites of quasi-melody for Brightman’s infrequent arias (some of which are mixed into the underscore, sadly), but it’s all too relentless to ultimately make a lasting impact. Add to that an almost obsessive use of minor keys and you’re left with an incredibly dour feeling film, something that of course is in keeping with its dystopian vision, but which can be off-putting at the same time.
Repo! has an extremely inventive visual conceit, in that the real life action springs from comic book panels (inked by the obviously multi-talented Zdunich) which are used sort of like interstitial dialogue cards used to be in silents. They’re there to provide backstories for all of the major characters, but they also ground the film in a cartoony reality that keeps the omnipresent gore from being too overwhelming, something that a more playful song score would have aided. Director Bousman has a mostly sure visual sense, and it’s heartening to see a director of a musical not rely on nonstop quick cuts (no pun intended) to achieve a feeling of momentum. While some of the film does feel overly busy, there’s at least a constancy of vision that makes Repo! absolutely unique. What’s perhaps not quite so consistent is Repo!’s tone, which lurches uneasily around the horror genre without ever fully exploiting the sense of fun and whimsy that its creators evidently—ahem—saw.
This is a film that has “cult hit” written all over it, and of course part of that cult appeal is its very unusualness. It’s not a masterpiece by any stretch, and it would have been helped immensely by one simple thing—a memorable tune or two interspersed with the nonstop assault of power chords and husky throated vocals. When Brightman accosts Vega in a scene about three quarters of the way through the film, and projects a hologram of Vega’s dead mother, it’s set to a neat little Cirque du Soleil-esque world music obliggato called “Chase the Morning” that is like a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately, it’s mixed way underneath the ranting and raving that the main characters are singing at the time, and that’s endemic of Repo!’s failings—sometimes the best stuff is too far in the background where it’s next to impossible to enjoy. There is, however, and awful lot of background here, with an appealingly bizarre premise and realization, and that’s probably enough to recommend Repo! to the more adventurous viewer out there, especially one that’s been raised on the soothing sounds of Nine Inch Nails. If you want Art with a capital A, stick with Sweeney Todd.
Video: Repo!’s image is intentionally soft, bleached of color and on the dark side. If you go in to the film with that in mind, it’s visually interesting on its own terms, though never incredible from a purely technical standpoint. The entire film is filtered to be on either the blue or amber side, with colors intentionally blanched, so don’t expect mind blowing saturation here. What is truly puzzling about this release, as it is with the BD, is the fact that the film was obviously originally released in an OAR of 1.85:1. Both the BD and SD-DVD have been weirdly truncated (sideways, that is) to 1.78:1, which doesn’t do incredible damage but which does completely cut off some of the dialogue bubbles in the comic book interstitials. This is a most perplexing decision (if not an outright mistake) on the part of Lionsgate.
Audio:The DD 5.1 track is robust and has excellent fidelity, though surround channels are not utilized very creatively. This is, not to state the obvious, a bass heavy score, with tons of thrashing power chords and an omnipresent kick drum, and the low frequency reproduction is excellent. If directionality mostly goes by the wayside, it ultimately doesn’t matter in the long run. The overall mix of the film is well handled, with vocals well placed front and center amid a churning mass of guitars and percussion.
Extras: Chief among the extras are two above-average commentary tracks, one by Bousman and Vega with two other supporting actors, and a better one focusing more on the nuts and bolts of making the film and its genesis from its original stage version, featuring Bousman along with co-authors Darren Smith, Zdunich and music producer Joseph Bishara. One other featurette, “Legal Assassin” (3:53), a portrait of Head’s character and his big song, is also included, as well as the theatrical trailer.