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Arts & Culture

Film Review: 'Colma: The Musical'

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Roadside Attractions
"Colma: The Musica"

Population 1.5 million but only 1100 living. That's how a headline describes the town of Colma, California, where nearly three-quarters of the land is devoted to cemeteries. A stone's throw from San Francisco, this tiny town provides the unlikely setting for "Colma: The Musical" (opening August 24 at Landmark's Ken Cinema). Listen to my interview with the two young filmmakers who decided to mix "West Side Story" with "Ghost World ."

Richard Wong said he's always had a passion for the Hollywood musical.
"There's something chemical about music and pictures. I always loved it ever since my dad introduced it to me and before I knew it wasn't cool," Wong said.

Cool or not Wong has directed "Colma: The Musical" with college buddy H.P. Mendoza providing the script and songs.

"The fact that Colma does not lend itself to being a musical is the reason I did it," Mendoza said.

What Mendoza has done is turn his fog-shrouded, sleepy hometown into the backdrop for a musical about three recent high school grads trying to figure out what to do with their lives .

"I wasn't trying to be ironic," Mendoza said. "It just felt kind of right because its about these three kids trying to get out and they are just full of energy, they want to get out but instead of leaving they're going to spend all that energy complaining about where they are."

One of the lyrics for a song in the film says: "Colma stays land of cemeteries, car dealerships, and schools, there's nary a thing I haven't done in Colma..."

Mendoza taps into magic realism to spin his low budget coming-of-age tale.
"We have a small film," Mendoza said. "That has nothing to do with budget. You can be as creative and as wild and magical as you want, so we figured why not have a bunch of people waltzing randomly in a graveyard behind someone who's singing his heart out to the screen. Let's do a real musical not ever apologize for it."

Richard Wong is equally unapologetic about the film's approach.
"The music gave us some license to go a little surreal and go into the brain of these kids," Wong said.

The character of Billy sings: "There's only one name on my mind"
"Billy is singing about his girlfriend," Wong explained. "He's in this surreal world and he's making everything way bigger than it is. Like she gives him this peck on the lips and suddenly he's in love with her. To try to convey this I thought we needed something in the background to talk about how everything is really big and extraordinary and amazing so luckily our producer Paul was an ex-gymnast. So how about do some cartwheels in the background."

The lyricism of the background contrasts with the realism of the foreground to deliver a refreshing and energetic take on teen angst. Mendoza said the production also got an adrenaline boost from shooting one number surreptitiously in the local mall.

"We actually had our producer looking out for security guards and whenever he saw a security guard he would say 'Scramble,' and Rich would hide the camera and we would all run and pretend that we were shopping," Mendoza recalled.

That guerrilla shooting style invests the films with a sense of fun. And that fun spills over into the silly way Mendoza has people sing mundane lines of dialogue such as "Is this the bathroom?"

"I thought to myself as I was writing this what a horrible thing to have to say 'Is this the bathroom?' 'Yes it is.' It's not that lyrical but I thought it would be funny to actually have that come out in a song," Mendoza said.

There's also a drunken number after a party in which Mendoza's character sets off a car alarm.

"My character, Rodel, jumps on the car and he uses the car alarm as a metronome. And sings it like Burt Bacharach would," Mendoza said.

As with the recent "Hairspray," "Colma" joyously celebrates the clunky yet endearing conventions of movie musicals. But Wong and Mendoza invest their musical with characters that ring very true.

"The number one thing I wanted to get across is that these relationships feel very real, the kids feel very real," Wong explained. "Despite all the crazy things that happen in the movie people can still connect to these relationships."

"Colma" is all about contrasts -- bright energetic kids stuck in a dead-end town; old-fashioned musical conventions butting up against the real world; drab surroundings set to a dynamic score. All logic suggests that "Colma: The Musical" should not work. But Wong and Mendoza make it work with an ease that probably comes from being young and not knowing any better. "Colma" works because the filmmakers believe it can and aren't listening to anyone who tells them otherwise. Take a visit to "Colma," you won't regret it.

Companion viewing: West Side Story, Ghost World , Oliver! (they watched "Oliver!" before shooting the Goodbye Stupid number), Umbrellas of Cherbourg.