Directed by Daryn Lynn Bousman, Repo! The Genetic Opera became an instant cult classic when it was released in 2008. True to its distinctio...

Organs and Op'ra: Repo! The Genetic Opera

Directed by Daryn Lynn Bousman, Repo! The Genetic Opera became an instant cult classic when it was released in 2008. True to its distinction as a rock opera, the music never stops and aside from a few snatches of spoken dialogue, the entire movie is one song after another. This can get frightfully tedious for some fans of horror musicals like Rocky Horror or Sweeney Todd which provide breaks between bursting into song. But Repo! is exactly what it claims to be, a genetic opera to the very end.

Repo! The Genetic Opera takes place in the not-so-distant future where the spread of industry has caused massive organ failures. The human population faces certain death until GeneCo emerges as a savior, selling affordable organs on credit. There’s just one problem, if you miss your payments GeneCo sends out the Repo Man to recover their property (Genetic Repo Man). In the midst of this horror, a private drama unfolds involving the Repo Man Nathan, his sick daughter Shilo, Rotti Largo, the head of GeneCo and the opera singer Blind Mag.

Most of you will recognize Anthony Head as Buffy’s watcher from the popular TV series, but in Repo! He takes on a completely different role as the vengeful and tortured Repo Man Nathan, plagued by accidentally killing his wife when he tries to cure her of a terminal illness. Nathan becomes a Repo Man for Rotti Largo on the condition that the circumstances of his wife Marni’s death will never be revealed to his daughter Shilo, and he leads a double life as a respectable doctor by day and a ruthless Repo Man by night. His Jekyll and Hyde persona is revealed in Legal Assassin as Nathan bemoans the loss of Marni and his secret Repo life. “I am only living out a lie!” he cries to ghostly portraits of Marni accompanied by the deep riff of electric guitars and pounding bass, with the exultant final line, “I’m the Repo, legal assassin!”

Played by Alexa Vega, Shilo is the Alice in Wonderland of Repo!, who falls down the rabbit hole after seventeen years of being kept under lock and key by her overprotective father. Sick with a blood disease, she spends her hours watching the genetic opera and the world go by outside her window. Her opus is Infected a frustrated cry against the blood condition that keeps her confined. “Why, oh why, are my genetics such a bitch?” she asks to a symphony of discordant piano and screeching guitar. The lyrics “How much of it’s genetics? How much of it is fate?” set up the central theme in Repo! of free will versus our genetic destiny.

Shilo evades her father’s grasp and ventures into the outside world, becoming the focus of Rotti Largo who, disappointed by his own offspring (Pavi, Luigi and Amber) and terminally ill, wants to “leave it all to the kid” (Gold). Rotti is the head of GeneCo, but he also has a dark side and it is revealed that he is responsible for making Nathan into a monster. Rotti was originally engaged to Marni when Nathan came and stole her away from him, much to his shame and embarrassment in the press. Rotti took revenge on Nathan by slipping poison into Marni’s “cure”. Fading fast, Nathan had to rip Shilo from Marni’s womb which resulted in her death. Rotti makes Nathan into a Repo Man, forcing him to reenact the death of his wife with every organ repossessed. His memory of Marni’s death blurs with the death of his victims in Night Surgeon as he “remember[s] every dying whisper…[and] marking every victim with acute precision.”

Shilo is able to escape Rotti with the help of the misanthropic Graverobber , played by Terrance Zdunich a storyboard artist whose only other acting credit is a 2001 straight video affair called Chain of Souls. Nevertheless, Zdunich gives a powerful performance as the drug dealer /storyteller who establishes the frame narrative of Repo! with his song 21st Century Cure. The Graverobber’s ballad explains how technology caused a rash of organ failures that created a market for body parts. He has become part of the sub market for Zydrate, a powerful narcotic that dulls the pain of multiple surgeries and can be harvested illegally from the dead, hence his name. Though he critiques the system by asking a corpse, “Why care for these petty obsessions?/Your designer heart still beats with common blood” he is still part of it, providing Zydrate to the scalpel sluts addicted to the knife.

The Graverobber’s business as a Z-dealer is outlined in Zydrate Anatomy a song that explains what Z is and how to use it. Graverobber is surrounded by a crowd of Z-addicts after a Zydrate Addicts Support meeting, all of them jonesing for a fix. The sing-song quality of this number likens it to a nursery rhyme with its repetition of key phrases such as, “Zydrate comes in a little glass vial. A little glass vial? A little glass vial… and when the gun goes off it sparks and you’re ready for surgery.” Attracted by his wares, Amber Sweet played by Paris Hilton, shows up for a Z fix.

Hilton is surprisingly good as the spoiled daughter of Rotti and GeneCo heiress (who says art doesn’t imitate life?) who’s addicted to surgery, as long as they don’t let her sing too long. She was supposed to have an extended number with Graverobber called Come Up and Try My New Parts but anyone who has glimpsed the footage on YouTube knows why they cut it. With all the moaning, bumping and grinding it could have been a musical rendition of her sex tape, so the footage got spliced into the film during “Zydrate Anatomy”, sans the crappy singing. Her best performance is a half minute of singing in Can’t Get It Up If the Girl’s Not Breathing? as she tries to convince the Graverobber to take supple flesh instead of hard cash as payment for Zydrate.

But Amber Sweet is a whiny foil to the true star of the genetic opera, Blind Mag. Played by Sarah Brightman, Mag was blind and best friends with Marni when Rotti came along and offered her new eyes. But those new peepers came with a price, and though Mag can now see, she is locked in a contract to be the Voice of Geneco forever. Brightman really shines in Chase the Morning when she discovers that Shilo, who Nathan told her was dead, is still alive. She tells Shilo “don’t look back until you’re free to chase the morning” encouraging her to follow her dreams and yield for nothing even though for Mag it’s too late.

Repo! ultimately plays around with the idea of free will versus fate as hereditary. Even though what we are is fixed by our genetics, who we are never stops changing. Shilo finally makes that realization in Genetic Emancipation. “You, I’ve mistaken for destiny, but the truth is my legacy is not up to my genes,” she sings as she leaves the genetic opera and Rotti’s offer of GeneCo behind. Though Shilo has learned a valuable lesson, the rest of the world remains the same as the Graverobber sings in Epitaph: “the little girl fled and the king is dead/ and the castle is left for the taking/ but GeneCo may survive if it undergoes surgery, surgery” echoing the lyrics from “Zydrate Anatomy” and suggesting that nothing has really changed.