When I was in high school, I went through a phase where I was really into musicals. It began as a thing that my mom and I could bond over (she introduced me to the soundtrack for The Phantom of the Opera, and from there we explored other soundtracks together). Eventually I developed other interests and diversified my musical tastes beyond show tunes, but I still have a soft spot for the musical storytelling format.
Flash forward a few years to after Rachael and I got married. We were really into watching the shows hosted by That Guy With the Glasses, including a series called Music Movies by the video host Paw. The premise of that series was that Paw would review film adaptations of musicals with a rundown of all the show’s songs and basic plot before noting which songs he thought were the best and worst of the film. I thought it was a pretty entertaining series, and it was my introduction to Repo! The Genetic Opera (this encounter with a cult film via comedic reviews isn’t unique; the Nostalgic Critic’s review of The Room was how I first learned about that delightful trainwreck). The collision of a traditional musical sensibility with a story about body modification and gothic aesthetics was really intriguing. Not enough to make me want to watch the whole movie, but intriguing nonetheless (I suspect there was also some trepidation on my part to show any further interest in a movie that was so overtly sexual; I was still an evangelical, after all).
Anyhow, I put seeing Repo! on the backburner at the time, and it’s only just recently that I’ve gotten back around to watching it (thanks Netflix!).
It’s definitely an experience.
The first thing that caught my notice was that the rock and metal influenced soundtrack is a pretty far departure from the Broadway style musicals that I developed a taste for. A few of the songs are legitimately catchy, but most of them didn’t really stick in my ear the way others have in the past. I legitimately enjoyed watching Anthony Stewart Head’s performance, and any song that involves him was instantly more memorable to me. Beyond that, I found myself more invested in the story than the songs, with the latter serving to highlight the emotional beats of the former well enough, though they’re nothing that I’d want to listen to independently.
The story itself actually has a lot going for it. With a premise that revolves around a future dystopia that’s emerged in the wake of a global plague of organ failure and the commoditization of organ transplants, I see a lot that resonates with contemporary issues of class and turning basic needs into privileges. The bit about Congress legalizing the repossession of organs if recipients default on their payments seems like a bit of a stretch, but in the heightened reality of the story where people are addicted to surgery, I’m willing to go with it.
The main plot revolves around Nathan Wallace and his daughter Shilo. Nathan works as a repo man, collecting organs from people who can’t make their payments and leaving them to die in the aftermath. He hides his occupation from his daughter, who believes that he’s a regular doctor. Additionally, Shilo has a vaguely defined blood disease (inherited from her mother, who died accidentally after Nathan administered a bad treatment for her disease) which requires that she stay confined to her bedroom. Parallel to Nathan and Shilo are the Largo family, the owners of GeneCo, the company that revolutionized transplants. The Largo patriarch, Rotti, has a terminal condition and is desperately trying to find a suitable heir for his empire since he deems his three children (all highly unstable) unfit to inherit the company. Rotti and Nathan are connected by Marni, Shilo’s dead mother, who left Rotti to marry Nathan. Rotti gets the idea in his head that Shilo is the daughter he would have had if Marni hadn’t met Nathan, and so he sets in motion a scheme to turn her against her father and claim her as his true heir.
It’s all very operatic.
Now, while the general structure of the story is fine and fits very solidly in the tradition of opera stories which are about big, extreme emotions overlaid on relatively simple melodramatic stories, some things about the story bug me. Shilo is our primary viewpoint character, but most of her involvement in the story is as a pawn caught between Nathan and Rotti. Before the story’s over, we learn that Nathan has been keeping Shilo ill so that she won’t abandon him, and Rotti actually deliberately poisoned Marni’s medication so that she would die when Nathan tried to cure her (these manipulations are piled on top of the fact that both men are violently murderous, though the nature of the world they inhabit makes that trait less remarkable). There’s some interesting exploration of whether Shilo is capable of escaping her heritage (first, the manufactured disease that her mother had, and then later the penchant for violence she got from her father), though it never quite plays out the way I would have liked (there’s a moment where Shilo has to choose whether she’ll kill Nathan after learning about his betrayal, but we don’t get any other instances of foreshadowing that she’s as violent as he is). Shilo’s just extremely passive, and it’s an unfortunately common problem for heroines in the musical stories with which I’m familiar.
And that’s probably my biggest complaint with Repo!. While it does a lot of unusual things with the musical formula, it’s still at its heart a very traditional musical. You see tons of melodrama and people singing about their feelings with minimal action, which is always enacted by the male characters as a play for control of the female characters. It happens in Phantom of the Opera, it happens in Beauty and the Beast, and it happens in Repo! The Genetic Opera.