Cult Classics: Colma: The Musical

colma musical index

The small town of Colma is best known for having seventeen cemeteries despite only having a population of 1,600, and it’s estimated that their are about 1.5 million people buried there as it’s where the deceased of nearby San Francisco end up. Having lived nearby when young, back in 2006 H.P. Mendoza wrote a musical about the inhabitants of the place, specifically three teenagers who have just left high school and don’t know what to do with their lives.

Mendoza plays one of them as well, the gay poet Rodel who is as initially listless as his two friends Billy (Jake Moreno) and Maribel (L. A. Renigen), as they gatecrash parties and struggle with existence in this tiny town where nothing seems to ever happen. Billy’s trying to get over a failed relationship with a girl and hopes to make it as an actor, Rodel plans to become a published poet, while Maribel, well, she’s really not sure what she wants to do other than get laid fairly often.

It’s a tiny budgeted affair shot on digital camera and you can sometimes see how small the budget is. Most of the time it looks professionally made but there is the odd scene where it almost looks like a home video, though these are few and far between and it’s such an enjoyable work that it never really matters. Indeed I hope that doesn’t put anyone off seeking it out as it’s an incredibly charming movie, sure not much happens but the dialogue is impressive throughout and highlights what it’s like to grow up in a place which is pretty damn bleak, and though certain characters can be a tad pretentious and selfish the film is very aware of their faults.

Most impressive is the soundtrack however, H.P. Mendoza has crafted thirteen incredibly catchy songs, and all sound superb too, with whatever money they had clearly going on recording them. There’s real inventiveness in the creation of them, sometimes the songs stop for a bit of spoken dialogue or involve characters who are only briefly onscreen, and there’s a great sense of fun throughout many of them, as they celebrate the joys of gatecrashing a party or rant about how shitty their ex’s are, and one of the best is an old fashioned show tune where Rodel insults a bunch of students in hilarious style.

But as the film goes on the songs grow in depth and there’s some notably impassioned lyricism, especially in one where Rodel struggles with the way his life has turned out after his Dad has beaten him up after discovering he’s gay, while Billy’s final song is enormously affecting too, and most stunning of all is a graveyard set number, a duet between Rodel and Maribel about the inevitability of death. Not that the film forgets to have fun along the way, there’s still some superb moments which made me laugh hard, the best being a montage of the play that Billy stars in that is knowing in the extreme.

If there’s a downside it’s that the ending feels a little rushed, after Billy screws up the friendship he has with Rodel and his new relationship with Tara, Rodel suddenly decides to move to New York and Billy is leaving too, heading off to nearby San Francisco. Maribel fails to get any real sense of closure alas, but then perhaps I’m being a little churlish in my complaint as it can’t be argued that it’s not realistic, and that sometimes life takes unpredictable directions and not everything is tidied up in a neat fashion.

Otherwise it’s a film that I liked an awful lot, despite the cheap look it’s effectively edited and makes good use of split screens and other camera trickery, all of the actors involved turn in fantastic performances and have admirable vocals, the script is sharp and captures small town life in a realistic way, and the songs are staged in an engaging manner. If you’ve ever struggled to live in a small town or hoped for more from your life than you’re currently getting it’ll be a film which will chime deeply with you, and even if that’s not the case I’m sure it still will do so.

Alex Finch.
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