Sunday, April 14, 2024

“MÚSICA”

THE STORY – A young man with synesthesia faces an uncertain future while navigating the pressures of love, family and his Brazilian culture in Newark, N.J.

THE CAST – Rudy Mancuso, Camila Mendes, J.B. Smoove, Francesca Reale, Maria Mancuso & Gabriela Amerth

THE TEAM – Rudy Mancuso (Director/Writer) & Dan Lagana (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 91 Minutes


Rudy (Rudy Mancuso) is your typical twentysomething, living at home with his Brazilian mother (Maria Mancuso) in New Jersey while he takes business classes at the local community college with his girlfriend Haley (Francesca Reale), with whom he plans on moving in with in Manhattan after graduation. What’s not so typical is how he sees the world: Everyday sounds bounce around Rudy’s head, creating rhythmic music that forms a distracting soundtrack to his life. His increasing distraction leads Haley to suggest they take a break because she doesn’t feel heard. His mother immediately tries to set him up with a nice Brazilian girl, but Rudy isn’t interested in a relationship. Until then, he meets Isabella (Camila Mendes) at the local fish market. She doesn’t seem interested at first, but the more they hang out, the closer they become, and Rudy feels like he’s finally found someone who accepts him for who he is. When Haley sees him happy and wants to try again, Rudy finds himself at a crossroads. Which path will he choose?

“Música” represents Mancuso’s cinematic debut as a director, writer, and lead actor. There haven’t been many multi-hyphenate debuts as confidently ambitious as this, and the shocking thing is that he makes good on that confidence. “Música” thrums with the kind of unbridled creativity that can only come from someone with a clear vision in their head and an unwillingness to compromise. Even scenes that clearly riff on scenes from other films, like a scene in a restaurant where Rudy attempts to keep both of his girlfriends from noticing that he’s spending time with the other, have a spark that sets them apart.

While this is Mancuso’s feature debut, his creative output encompasses dozens of web videos over nearly a decade. Fans will recognize many of the bits in the film as ideas from those videos polished so that they fit in seamlessly with the film’s bigger swings. Mancuso’s authorial voice is now fully formed, and the film never wavers from its singular tonal register. Rudy works through some of his issues by having conversations with one of the puppets he creates shows for (sample puppet show song, entitled “Starbucks”: “It’s expensive”), filmed as though the puppet was a real person. In most other films, this would read as over the top. Still, here, it feels like a natural extension of the music in Rudy’s head, doubling as another creative storytelling device in a film full of bursting with creativity.

Every scene in “Música” goes above and beyond, reflecting character and theme through editing, blocking, and design choices. Mancuso and his collaborators go the extra mile wherever they can, connecting characters and situations unexpectedly throughout the film. A mid-film long take best exemplifies the film’s ethos: In one unbroken take, the camera follows Rudy as he goes from home to school to other locations we’ve seen in the movie as he systematically lies to all the women in his life, eventually hitting his moral rock bottom. The sequence stunningly displays Mancuso’s filmmaking bona fides, but everything about its conception and execution is deeply rooted in both character and theme. As Rudy lies to one person after another, cast and crew members move around sets, props, and costume pieces to transition from one scene to the next, purposefully calling attention to the artifice of the whole enterprise. With all the technical bravura on display, it should feel like Mancuso is just showing off, but because of how thoroughly he has conceived of it, it feels like an organic part of the fabric of the film, drawing the audience deeper into Rudy’s world instead of merely shouting, “look what I can do!”

Mancuso’s confidence behind the camera is matched by his ease in front of it. As Rudy, he may be playing a version of himself, but the soul he brings to the character’s indecisiveness goes a long way toward making Rudy as likable as he needs to be for the film to work. You feel his pain and want him to pull through, even when he screws up. It’s unsurprising that Mancuso would make an ideal vessel for his own directorial and writer vision, but he’s surrounded himself with actors who manage to do the same. Mendes has an earthy yet sassy energy that allows Isabella to call out Rudy’s lousy behavior while grounding him in the moment. She and Mancuso have such a natural chemistry with each other that it’s not surprising to find out that they started dating in real life not long after the shoot. Reale manages to bring real heart to Haley even though it’s clear that she has blinders on when it comes to her life goals; she has a genuine concern for Rudy, but she wants him to fit into her life and plans regardless of what he wants and will force him to change in order to get it. The actress conveys all this without ever making Haley overly self-involved to the point that she becomes a villain, which is a tricky task. Mancuso casts his own mother in the role of Rudy’s mother, which works not in spite of her lack of experience but rather because of it. Completely natural onscreen in the way only someone who has never acted for a camera can be, she’s the film’s secret weapon, the anchor keeping everything grounded in reality when everything else threatens to become too much.

Mancuso knows just how much sensory overload the film can take, though. It never becomes too much, not even the stylized musical transitions on the bus that Rudy commutes on or the extended puppet sequences. A film about creativity should capture as much of the creative spark as possible, and “Música” does so in a way so joyous that you’ll sing and dance your way out of the theater. The vibrant musical sequences hum with electricity, and that energy, along with Mancuso’s exacting eye, lifts the rest of the film to heights it wouldn’t have reached otherwise. A thrilling debut, “Música” announces the arrival of Rudy Mancuso in a big way. Hopefully, he has more to say because he’s shown that he has an exciting, unique way of saying it.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Rudy Mancuso makes a thrilling debut as writer-director-star of this joyous, thoroughly original, semi-autobiographical tale of life, love, music, and puppets.

THE BAD - A bit scattered, with lots of bits that feel shortchanged.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 8/10

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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Rudy Mancuso makes a thrilling debut as writer-director-star of this joyous, thoroughly original, semi-autobiographical tale of life, love, music, and puppets.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>A bit scattered, with lots of bits that feel shortchanged.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>8/10<br><br>"MÚSICA"