Musica (2024)

If música be the food of love, play on

Musica is an innovative musical romantic comedy. Unfortunately, those components are totally out of whack: It’s pretty great at being an innovative musical but pretty lousy at being a romantic comedy. And so your mileage will vary quite a lot with this one depending on how much you’re entranced by clever editing, diegesis shattering, and formal twists — as opposed to bothered by poorly-structured and -paced romantic conflict.

This comes at odds with the film’s marketing, though, which has positioned it as yet another shoveled-out streaming romcom. I don’t know whether this slipped through the cracks of the streaming machine as something more unique with more authorial voice than your normal content mill output, or whether Amazon knew it would be something different but struggled to convey what the movie actually is. Regardless, I suspect people tuning in for another turn-your-brain-off romcom like Your Place or Mine will be baffled.

The film is directed, written, and starring Rudy Mancuso in his debut film. Mancuso has an interesting background — his breakthrough came from six-second video app Vine back in 2013, and he has since been a multi-hyphenate that Wikipedia summarizes as “Internet personality.” He very publicly dated Teen Beach Movie star Maia Mitchell for several years; he now very publicly dates Musica co-star Camila Mendes (and it’s not hard to project those personalities onto the film’s romantic figures). Mancuso has synesthesia; he also built his following on YouTube with musical sketches involving puppets. These two aspects of his background, specifically, are pretty evident with Musica.

Mancuso positions himself as a Brazilian cross between Damien Chazelle and Woody Allen, though not quite as interesting as that sounds. (Throw in a dash of Jason Segel circa Muppets and Forgetting Sarah Marshall to account for a love of puppetry.) Musica is a Mancuso coming-out party above all else: he leaves a strong impression as a unique filmmaking voice and presence, one who I’ll definitely keep tabs on for future films. (Though I hope he finds a new stylist before his next film… I will be diplomatic and call his hair “distinctive.”)

Mancuso plays a character named Rudy — yes, his real name, in case it wasn’t already glaringly obvious that this film is semi-autobiographical — a college senior who lives with with his mom in Newark, NJ. Rudy needs to finish his thesis in order to graduate, but he prefers to spend his time performing a musical puppet show in the subway. He opens the film in a long-term relationship with Haley (Francesca Reale), who has already planned out their future together: corporate jobs, an expensive apartment, and an Instagram-worthy lifestyle in a trendy New York City neighborhood.

What makes Rudy unique is that he is plagued with a condition that causes him to hear music in everyday life, forming non-stop mini-symphonies in his head from background noises. The depiction of this is my favorite part of Musica. In any given scene, we quickly bounce between shots of different noise-causing phenomena, and their noises are progressively mixed together such that it forms a rhythmic soundscape. Mancuso is playing around with the very notion of a film musical, of people breaking out into song as a puncture to reality (though he stops short of spontaneous singing most of the time, which disappointed me). It reminds me of A Woman is a Woman in this regard, or perhaps Patrick Dempsey’s confusion at the start of the “How Does She Know” number in Enchanted. The closest parallel, though, is Chazelle’s lovely college film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, in which the lives of a jazz musician and his girlfriend gradually transform into a musical.

This condition of Rudy’s is a twist of magical realism, though it is treated as a kind of neurodivergence and informed by Mancuso’s real-life synesthesia diagnosis. It’s also easy to see it as a metaphor for ADHD or autism, something that prevents Rudy from engaging with the world in a way most people do.

In the very first scene of the film, a lunch at a diner, Haley loses patience with Rudy’s disconnection from their conversation, and the couple get into one of those arguments that is ambiguously a breakup, though Rudy makes clear he sees it as such and spends the next few scenes trying to get over Haley. This ends up being a pretty big problem for the film, because in a typical romcom, Haley would be little more than the nasty ex who sends the protagonist to rock bottom. When she reappears several scenes later and hangs around as part of a love triangle for the rest of the film, it kneecaps the movie as a romance, because we’ve already bought that she and her over-planned future are wrong for Rudy (and so has Rudy!), so every moment they’re together is a frustration.

The other vertex of this love triangle is Isabella (Mendes), who is a quintessential manic pixie dream girl, designed entirely to help Rudy learn the lessons the movie needs him to: finding a better appreciation for his Jersey hometown and his Brazilian heritage, taking his puppet dream to the next level, and embracing his weird music-generating brain. Luckily, Mendes, who has emerged as the most productive Riverdale alum, is charming and empathetic enough to make Isabella seem human even when the character isn’t especially deep.

The result is one of those romcoms that’s not really about two people falling in love, but about one person using romance as the prism for a coming-of-age experience. This isn’t inherently bad, but it is disappointing that Mancuso couldn’t squeeze any character development or depth out of any of his characters except the protagonist.

Though shallow and genre-confused, it’s still a fun film to watch as a clever quasi-musical with terrific editing. The whole presentation has a multimedia feeling to it such that it’s constantly shaken out of its flow into something fresh. That’s why I give it a soft thumbs up overall.

Is It Good?

Good (5/8)

Follow Dan on Letterboxd or Twitter. Join the Discord for updates and discussion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *