10YA’s resident musicologist Max DeCurtins deconstructs harmonies in the post-rock era over the visual landscape of gratuitous Shakespearean twinks in his re-view of Tom Gustafson’s Were the World Mine.
“Take Dead Poets Society, add a fistful of glitter, and crank it to 11.”
This is how my roommate—a soprano in a town full of gay tenors and organists and thus an inveterate admirer of all things homosexual—described Were the World Mine on her first viewing. I may have had ulterior motives in suggesting she watch it with me—this re-view could well have turned out as a live-blog of her reactions—but instead I ended up learning that if you want to have a physical altercation with my roommate, just fuck with the stress pattern or syllable count of iambic pentameter. Sometimes in life, you get more than you bargain for.
If you’re anything like me, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was one of the first Shakespeare plays you ever encountered, if not the first. I think I first saw Were the World Mine in chunks on the YouTube of yore where people had figured out that if you partitioned videos a certain way you could avoid attracting the attention of the Takedown Squad. I wasn’t out yet in 2008, and while I have typically never gone in for next-level camp, something about this strange artifact full of colorful design, crazy abundant shirtlessness, and a crazier musical score stuck with me.
This is a weird-ass and weirdly charming movie. Seemingly half the actors in the major roles clearly wanted to use this film to help launch music careers, which usually signals a potential train wreck in the making, but somehow this obscure little musical manages to avoid such an ignominious fate. Were the World Mine is writer-director Tom Gustafson’s feature-length expansion of his 2003 short film Fairies, and y’all, we’ve got everything here: choreography with dodgeballs and rugby balls, go-go dancers in fairy wings, skinny jeans aplenty, and a score that careens from style to style with barely a breath between them. There’s a lot to unpack in these 95 minutes, but this re-view is coming due and I have to try to be something like a responsible human, so we’re just going to get right down to business.
Timothy (Tanner Cohen), a twinkish thing with a penchant for the then-relatively new combination of skinny jeans and hoodies, is the lone gay boy in a small Illinois town with inhabitants whose minds are as narrow as the borders of town. He lives with his mother Donna (Judy McLane), who struggles with steady employment and the conflict between her devotion to Timothy and her own lingering homophobia. Though Timothy refers to him as a “jackass,” it’s not clear why the father’s out of the picture, and the hints are confusing—Donna implies both that he rejected Timothy for being gay and that Timothy somehow forced her hand in leaving her erstwhile husband. Morgan Hill Prep, the oppressive high school Timothy attends, boasts exactly the kind of cesspool culture that in this country we apparently reward with lifetime judicial appointments.
Timothy harbors a crush on the equally twinkish Jonathon (Nathaniel David Becker), Morgan Hill’s rugby captain who slowly drops hints over the course of the movie that he might not be as straight as the “straight jock” trope might lead an audience to assume. I frankly wish I knew where this trope got started, because it seems to me it can’t possibly have been borne out of real-life experiences, but whatever. Cast as Puck in the senior play by his English teacher, Miss Tebbit (Wendy Robie, of Twin Peaks), Timothy discovers what appears to be a recipe for the juice of the love-in-idleness flower hidden in Shakespeare’s text, and assumes the role of a real-life Puck, turning all his classmates and all the townsfolk into homos with a well-timed spritz to the face.* Shenanigans ensue, egged on in no small part by Robie’s Tebbit, who gives zero fucks and openly trolls the toxic men in this story. Miss Tebbit is not here for your shit.
We are most definitely not going to discuss the anatomical implications of a Michaels-level fake flower that spouts fluid.
For example, these boys:
Turn into these boys:
Not only does a turn in the throes of same-sex desire magically turn all the townsfolk into tolerant human beings, but after everyone’s original state has been restored, Jonathon turns out to be gay after all—not that his earlier “nice pipes” compliment and comradely (and decidedly non-woke) pat on Timothy’s ass during a gym class basketball game were clues or anything.
The movie ends on an imaginative note, with Miss Tebbit asking the question, “Who’s next?” It strikes me as oddly optimistic for a year in which Proposition 8 got on the ballot in California and won, fueled in part by voter backlash to Gavin Newsom’s 2004 issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples almost immediately after assuming office as mayor of San Francisco. Ten years later, a Proposition 8 is again on the ballot in California—this time it’s about kidney dialysis clinic spending—and Newsom is all but assured to succeed Jerry Brown as governor come January 2019. (If you ask me, I think California should treat proposition numbers like the National Weather Service treats hurricane names, or sports teams treat jerseys, and retire the numbers of particularly problematic propositions. I move that 8 and 13 be permanently retired, effective immediately.) What’s changed, however, is that the question “Who’s next?” no longer asks who next will embrace tolerance of and respect for the LGBTQ+ community; rather, we’re inclined these days to read “Who’s next?” as a question asking whose rights, whose human dignity will be under assault next.
It’s with this in mind that Were the World Mine’s distinct lack of representation of diverse bodies sticks out ten years later. There is a lot of Gratuitous Twink in this film. Yes, it’s not far off from a live-action page out of an Abercrombie catalog of the late ’90s and early aughts, but it is expertly showcased by director of photography Kira Kelly, costume designer Elizabeth Powell Wislar, and choreographer Todd Underwood; what makes this movie compelling owes as much to these hard-working folks as it does to the preponderance of alabaster torsos or Tanner Cohen’s diva notes. Still, it’s hard to revisit the movie in 2018 without being acutely aware of how problematic it is that so much of the systemic privilege afforded to conventionally attractive white men pervades so many corners of LGBTQ+ culture as well. I’m not exactly going to say I don’t enjoy a bit of Gratuitous Twink. But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t make Were the World Mine even more extra than it already it is.
One of the things I’ve noticed about having exited the academic career track is that I’ve lost some of the breadth of knowledge in the field that doing a PhD and teaching courses on any number of topics tends to force one to have, and to keep at easy recall. As 10YA’s resident musicologist, I sometimes lack fluency in the specific stylistic vernacular of music employed in any given film, so I apologize in advance, because chances are that if I’d been made to teach a course on post-Beatles pop and rock music, I could probably do a better job of describing the stylistic influences than I have here. It’s frustrating, to be sure, but I’ll do my best to highlight what I find interesting (and maddening) in the music.
Most of the films I’ve recently re-viewed for 10YA have unremarkable musical scores, but even if you raise an eyebrow at the hit-or-miss dialogue or the uneven acting, take a moment to appreciate the score for Were the World Mine, for it is both fairly bonkers and rather compelling. On this point I am firmly opposed to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Reyhan Harmanci, who finds—unfairly, I think—the music the weakest part of the film. One could possibly call Were the World Mine a musical-lite, given that some of its cues come and go without ever developing into full-fledged musical numbers, and even the major musical numbers err on the shorter side; nevertheless, to find the film’s score detrimental to its overall value as entertainment is to lack thoughtfulness on a musical level.
As with many musicals, the total production represents the efforts of a team, in this case, Jessica Fogle for the songs and Tim Sandusky for the musical score. With orchestration as diverse as harpsichord, koto (a traditional Japanese plucked instrument), sitar, and synth electronic elements, the score brims with a distinctly funky camp. Electronic arpeggios punctuate flashes of orchestral ballet; a solo cello declaims thematic elements while a closely mic’d harp plucks out other thematic elements. We have acoustic guitars, electric guitars, and a whole goddamned regiment of percussion. The play of Pyramus and Thisbe takes the form of a rock song, led by Timothy’s friend Frankie (Zelda Williams, daughter of the late Robin). To put it simply, Were the World Mine takes a chance on something different—and, in this re-viewer’s opinion, wins. Harmanci mistakenly equates the quality of a musical with the mnemonic staying power of its “tunes,” but this assumption betrays a logical association fallacy: some musicals are great, and some musicals have memorable songs, but not all great musicals have memorable tunes. This argument falls even flatter when you consider film scores instead of musicals. John Williams turned out an ostensibly excellent score for Minority Report, but how much of that score can you quote? I thought so. But back to Twink: The Musical.
Some of the incidental musical bits feel tossed off in too casual a fashion, but when the numbers work, they work—Cohen’s “Sleep Sound” rises to the occasion of the dramatic position it occupies in the movie’s framing. The song begins out of the kabuki-influenced koto, percussion, and electric bass texture that Sandusky scores underneath the scene in which Puck gathers the lovers together to release them from their torment; we get a restatement of prior thematic material, and then, with an eruption from the actual dark and stormy night happening outside, we’re off in a completely different style. Written with deceptive harmonies to extend the momentum of phrases (listen to that long stretch of submediant undergirding “when thou wakest, thou takest true delight / In the sight of thy former lady’s eye”) and ending on a tonic substitute, making scale-degree 2 perform the melodic function usually reserved for the tonic, this final solo number from Cohen stays very much on-brand. The chorus, made up of the other frequently-appearing characters in the film, often sounds under-rehearsed and sometimes struggles to find a consistent pitch. (Roommate: “Can we just sing in tune for a fucking minute?!”) If there’s a weak aspect to the music in this film, this is it.
That said, everyone has their musical idiosyncrasies. For example, I generally cannot stand what I call “cadence-only polyphony.” This is where all the voices sing in unison, typically homorhythmically, until a cadence or phrase ending comes along, and then—BANG!—out of nowhere comes a two- or three-note harmonization at the third or at the sixth. Now, singing in unison in service of the clarity of text declamation has always been A Thing, but if a whole phrase is sung in unison, why confuse us with the rogue suggestion of a phantom second part that only manifests as cadence-only polyphony? For an example, take Helena’s line “I’ll follow thee, and make a Heaven of Hell” from Act 2, Scene 1, used in the number “Be As Thou Wast Wont.” It features a prominent instance of cadence-only polyphony, and it bothers me, EVERY TIME. Allow me to illustrate, in slightly simplified notation, how Jonathon’s solo turns into unison singing with Timothy, and then dunks the whole thing in powdered sugar with a one-off F-sharp/A-sharp dyad:
Notice the DISTINCT LACK OF POLYPHONY. (Yes, the key really is F-sharp major. Because reasons.) But at the end of the phrase, the melodic climax, suddenly we deserve bonus harmony?? It’s not so much a duet as it is a chorus of two that alternates between one soloist and the other, and then brings them together to sing the same music for, you know, extra effect. Then again, my idea of duets samples perhaps a little too heavily from Bach cantatas, Mozart operas, and grand motets of the French Baroque, so perhaps I’ll just show myself out.
Critically, the main complaint leveled at the film seems to center around the charge that the surfeit of camp tries to make up for the movie’s low-budget indie-ness and its slightly strained plot machinations—the Village Voice dragged the “mincing stereotypes” that the characters inhabit after they’ve been gayed-up by Timothy’s love-in-idleness, though I assume this refers more to the other prep school boys than the townspeople writ large. If this indictment has any substance to it, a larger-scale production would have remedied it without question. A mainstream cast and a big-budget production would likely have elevated Were the World Mine from an obscure festival film into nothing less than a sleeper-hit rival of Mamma Mia! (re-view here). Imagine it, casting courtesy of the roommate: Zac Efron and Taylor Lautner in the pretty-boy lead roles (and really, the role of Jonathon doesn’t deserve lead billing), Lily Tomlin as Miss Tebbit, and Jane Fonda as Nora Bellinger (née Fay), self-absorbed wife of Morgan Hill headmaster Dr. Bellinger.
This is not to say that a huge budget is the price to pay, literally, for wider fame for a movie already teetering at the margin; the movie really does take a little time to find its footing, as the critics charge. Admittedly, it does lean rather hard into Puck’s incantation “Be as thou wast wont to be, see as thou wast wont to see” as a sort of anthem or mantra for embracing one’s sexuality; the line features heavily as a refrain in several of the musical numbers. But rewarding details become apparent if you’re willing to look for them: for example, the set for the actual play at Morgan Hill Prep grows more and more complete as the movie progresses. If you like the idea of a campy cross between Dead Poets Society and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this might just be the dark-horse musical for you. Stephen Farber of The Hollywood Reporter says it straightforwardly: lots of movies take no chances and still manage to fail. Were the World Mine at least dares to be weird.