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‘Música’ Review: A Delightful, Subversive Musical Comedy That Makes Synesthesia Cinematic

On the surface, “Música” feels like a very standard story about a talented guy who finds himself caught between two girls he likes, and — rather than be honest with them — starts dating both at the same time. Hilarity ensues. Thankfully, much like the fictional Rudy he plays here, the real Rudy Mancuso is more than meets the eye. His feature directorial debut is a smart and charming coming-of-age love story that is also a musical and such a good cinematic portrayal of synesthesia that it’ll make you forget all about the other, misbegotten attempts to thread the same needle (does anyone remember “August Rush”?).

We are in the era of social media movie directors, but the days of “FRED: The Movie” are thankfully gone. Between Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade,” and Danny and Michael Philippou’s “Talk to Me,” YouTube is starting to seem like a viable incubator for worthwhile film directors. With “Música,” Vine-turned-YouTube star Mancuso becomes the latest to make the leap, and he does so with his whole being; he co-wrote, stars in, choreographed, composes, and directed this semi-autobiographical story based on his experience as a Brazilian-American living with synesthesia, a neurological condition that makes his brain hear rhythms from everyday sounds like car horns, door slams, a basketball bouncing on the court. It’s a condition that prevents him from focusing on what others are saying — even when he is being dumped.

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In the film, Rudy is a college student and part-time street performer living with his mother in Newark, New Jersey. Like many young people his age, he’s feeling aimless and stuck. Rudy is nearing graduation, but he isn’t sure he wants to heed his mom’s wishes and pursue a career in marketing. He performs a puppet show on a nearby subway station (specifically, the character Diego, from Mancuso’s real YouTube series, “Awkward Puppets”), but isn’t sure he wants to or even can take it to the next level. His long-term girlfriend Haley (Francesca Reale) is making plans to move across the river with him, but he doesn’t seem so committed and she doesn’t seem to understand his passion for music or his synesthesia. Their relationship is further tested by his mother (Maria is played by Mancuso’s actual mother, Maria Mancuso), who is pressuring him to marry a nice Brazilian girl and forget about the gringa.

Things change when, after a fight with Haley, as Rudy meets Isabella (Camila Mendes), a live-in-the-moment Brazilian-American girl who works in the local fish market and seems to immediately understand Rudy’s whole deal and accept it wholeheartedly. Of course, Rudy is an idiot, one with terrible advice from his best friend, Anwar (scene-stealer J.B. Smoove), a food truck owner who seems to blend into every cultural identity he comes across. Soon enough, Rudy is caught in a love triangle as he dates both girls at the same time.

As a romance movie, “Música” is charming as hell. The script is filled with tropes, like having every character seemingly only exist to complement Rudy. But Mancuso and co-writer Dan Lagana, who also co-created the excellent “American Vandal,” manage to embrace those tropes in order to deliver fresh and unique pay-offs that surprise. It helps that Mancuso and Mendes have great chemistry, the camera lingering on small looks and touches in their scenes together and selling their blossoming relationship. It is also very funny, not only in the dialogue, but visual gags, especially one at a climactic restaurant scene where Rudy seems to communicate musically with a piano player. As for the film’s lead, Mancuso is a revelation. The multi-hyphenate filmmaker manages to carry the entire plot, be charming, silly, compelling, and a character you easily want to root for.

Unsurprisingly, “Música” shines, well, when it deals with music. Mancuso and director of photography Shane Hurlbut manage to deliver a stunning musical where no one breaks into a traditional song and dance number. There are no lyrics, except for little bits where Rudy sings as his hilarious puppet, Diego: A highlight of the film and a reminder that everything is better with puppets. Still, the movie manages to have some dazzling numbers, like a one-shot scene showing Rudy’s love-triangle routine, as he goes from his bedroom to a country club, to his kitchen, to a café, to his mother’s salon, to a nightclub, a movie theater and then back to his bedroom, the set revolving like a stage play while a samba groove accompanies the chaos.

The music incorporates many authentic Brazilian instruments and sounds, which help give the film authenticity. Samba drums are heard as often as a cuica, like Brazilian funk and bossa nova influence the mostly diegetic soundtrack.

This last bit is important, because it is how “Música” manages to bring synesthesia to the screen in a cinematic way that shows the condition to be both a creative blessing and a bit of a day-to-day anxiety-inducing nightmare. The film manages to explain and portray synesthesia in a phenomenal scene where Rudy tries to tell Isabella how he experiences the world, directing her attention to the different noises of a public park — basketball players bouncing a ball, children jumping rope, garbage men throwing bags around — and turning them into an orchestral piece. Unlike Isabella, we actually get to hear things the way Rudy hears them, and it is a fantastic mix of directing, composing, sound design and editing that brings it all together. This may be a musical, but most of the music is composed of mundane, diegetic sounds like a broom sweeping, a door opening, or even footsteps, and yet they still make for an entertaining and compelling soundtrack.

“Música” is also a heartfelt love letter to the Newark neighborhood of Ironbound, a mostly Brazilian neighborhood Rudy learns to love throughout the film, in another clever subversion of immigrant story tropes about wanting to leave your small neighborhood and make it big to repay your parents’ sacrifice. It helps that the film has a diverse cast, showing a mostly Brazilian supporting cast of all sorts of skin tones representing the diversity of the country.

“Música” heralds the arrival of a filmmaker, an actor, and a musician worth paying attention to, while also delivering a winning and visually inventive musical comedy.

Grade: B+

“Música” premiered at SXSW 2024. It will be available to stream on Prime Video starting Thursday, April 4.

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