There are only two words in the English language that could describe "Repo! The Genetic Opera." One is ‘cluster', the other rhymes with the last name of a Disney character named Donald. "Repo!" is a Gothic, industrial sci-fi rock opera, the by-product of Tim Burton and Baz Luhrmann. Unlike the typical musical where characters suddenly burst into song, nearly every line of dialogue (except for two or three) is sung. As such, the music of "Repo!" is an unrelenting barrage of industrial, pop-punk sounds.
The concept began in 2002 as a stage play written by Darren Smith and Terrence Zdunich with Darren Lynn Bousman (who helmed "Saw II, III, IV") as director. Set sometime and somewhere in the future, humanity has suffered from an epidemic of organ failures. In the wake of these tragedies, a conglomerate known as GeneCo has risen into power, providing the population with the organs they so desperately need. The catch, however, is that should you fall behind on your payments, GeneCo will send a repo man to cut it right out of your body.
GeneCo's CEO is Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino), a Machiavellian King Lear who is dying from an unnamed illness. Largo has no desire to leave his technological kingdom to his three squabbling children. There's the hot-tempered Luigi (horror movie vet Bill Moseley) who has no qualms over killing somebody just for bumping into him. Second is Pavi (Skinny Puppy frontman, Nivek Ogre) who wears a macabre mask of flesh stapled over his own scarred visage. Pavi is also the only Largo to speak with an exaggerated accent. The youngest is daughter Amber Sweet inexplicably played by Paris Hilton. Ironically, Amber is a pampered and spoiled little brat who is the poster child for GeneCo. She's also heavily addicted to surgical procedures which have become as trendy in the future as tattoos and eyebrow piercings are today. But, this is not their story.
The main protagonist is, ostensibly, Shilo Wallace (a grown-up Alexa Vega from "Spy Kids") who suffers from a blood disease and lives under the iron fist of her overprotective father, Nathan (Anthony Stewart Head). Nathan is a doctor and widower who failed to save his wife, Marni (Sarah Power) from the same disease that's been passed down to his daughter. Since her death, he has been forced to work for Rotti as his repo man. Rounding out the ensemble cast are Blind Mag (Sarah Brightman), a singer and spokeswoman for GeneCo with tricked out eyes that emit holograms; and the Graverobber (Zdunich), a pseudo-narrator and chorus who peddles a painkilling drug called Zydrate.
The film builds to a crescendo during the climax which takes place at GeneCo's annual celebration, the Genetic Opera, a Grand Guignol of tragic revelations and death. Just like all good operas. Oh, and Paris Hilton's face falls off. That's got to be worth something, right?
Yes, that is a lot to absorb. "Repo!" crams about a million different ideas and songs into its scant 98 minute runtime. One of the many problems with the material is the fact that nearly every character, relationship, and subplot needs a detailed explanation. Flash animated comic book panels are interspersed throughout the first act in order to catch you up to speed with everyone's backstory. All the while your senses are being assaulted by one musical number after another.
In musicals, you usually have to deal with actors who can't sing or singers who can't act. That's the case here though a few of the cast can't seem to do either. I'm sure you can guess which young hotel heiress I'm talking about. Not even the great Paul Sorvino is able to give the operatic performance demanded from his character. He might have the acting chops, but not the pipes. Only three members of the eclectic cast are able to do both. Not surprisingly, they have the best numbers. It goes without saying that Sarah Brightman, the former Mrs. Andrew Lloyd Webber (and star of his "Phantom of the Opera"), is a natural even when she's buried under Goth makeup, creepy contact lenses, and a tight corset.
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" fans already know Anthony Stewart Head can carry a tune as he did just that in the wonderful musical episode, "Once More with Feeling." Here, Head alternates between ultra-serious and over-the-top to convey Nathan's devotion to his daughter as well as his own dwindling grip on sanity. Head knocks it out of the park with Bowie-esque vocals on numbers like "Legal Assassin" and "Thankless Job," the latter of which features Head using a hollowed out cadaver as a ventriloquist dummy. He also has a touching duet with Alexa Vega at the end of the film in "I Didn't Know I'd Love You So Much." Going solo, Vega rocks out with a quick punk number called "Seventeen," which featured a dancing teddy bear and a random appearance by Joan Jett on guitar.
"Repo!" holds the record for the most songs in one film at 64. Not all the numbers could be considered full-fledged songs. A few are essentially bits of conversation sung. None of the songs are really all that memorable other than the ones previously mentioned. A lot of the music is just disharmonious noise on top of noise. That's a shame as the filmmakers gathered together an equally diverse assortment of musicians to contribute to the recording. Among them are David J. and Daniel Ash from Bauhaus, Stephen Perkins from Jane's Addiction, and Melora Greager from Rasputina.
The production design looks remarkably good for a low-budget film. The futuristic city of "Repo!" is like the Los Angeles of "Blade Runner" if it was built by Anton Furst. However, it's hard to admire the sets when the film is lit with some God-awful soft lighting. Every character is enveloped by a ghostly glow as if they were getting ready for a cheesecake boudoir photoshoot. It's not at all flattering and doesn't fit with the grimy, gritty world that was created.
"Repo! The Genetic Opera" is a stark contrast to recent musicals such as "Hairspray" and "Mamma Mia." Where "High School Musical" appealed to the Disney Channel/Abercrombie & Fitch crowd, "Repo!" panders to the clientele of Hot Topic. But, it's standing as a dark tour de force is supplanted by the far superior, "Sweeney Todd." "Repo!" might have seemed like a cool idea on paper, but the execution and final product are a mess.
The film screams, ‘cult classic,' and isn't going after a mainstream audience. "Repo!" was originally released on November 7 and only in eight theaters. A small, but loyal band of fans have convinced Lionsgate to screen the movie on a pair of touring, midnight road shows. That's the audience the filmmakers are hoping to target. Much like "Rocky Horror Picture Show," "Repo!" is only for the midnight crowds who show up dressed in costume and ready to sing along. It will likely gain a devoted following, but probably won't match the staying power of "Rocky Horror." Over thirty years later, Brad, Janet, and Dr. Frank N. Furter are still packing them in, but one can't picture folks dressing up like Amber Sweet or Blind Mag in the future.
"Repo! The Genetic Opera' gets 4/10 on the DVD Town scale.