Film Review: Melanie Martinez’s ‘K-12’ Is A Twisted Pop Musical
Since the arrival of Beyoncé in 2013, a visual album (i.e. one with videos for each song) has become the gold standard in the music industry. It’s not only a time-consuming and costly endeavor, it also front-loads an era. Instead of drip-feeding content over the course of a year, fans get everything at once. Meaning that your audience has to be big enough to make it worthwhile. Melanie Martinez joined the visual album club with Cry Baby (every song eventually got a video), but she takes it one step further on K-12. Rather than putting together a mere collection of video clips, Melanie has written and directed a feature film.
What’s the difference? Well, a lot. K-12 (pronounced “K through 12”) is a 96-minute movie musical with dialogue, special effects and an overarching narrative. The film, which was shot in Budapest, Hungry over the course of a month, is a sequel of sorts to Cry Baby. The titular character, a twisted toddler with serious issues, is now of school age. After a cute re-introduction to Cry Baby, the film begins with our heroine being sent to a sinister, pastel-hued boarding school called K-12. In a baby pink school bus, of course.
The bus trip turns out to be a literal hell ride complete with school bullies, mean girls and a lecherous driver. Just when you think you’re settling in for a candy-colored PSA, things get very, very weird. Cry Baby and her bad ass BFF Angelita have magical powers, which they use to plunge the bus into the ocean and to soar through the clouds. With the scene set, Melanie delivers the first song — an earworm called “Wheels On The Bus.” The fact that she recorded the music with the film in mind is staggering and clearly apparent in its seamless integration into the plot.
It doesn’t take long for Cry Baby to become a force for good at K-12, helping fellow students escape creepy teachers and a drug-pushing principal. While the film takes its visual cues from the likes of Tim Burton and Wes Anderson, the content is multi-layered, gritty and distinctly Melanie. She touches on topics as diverse as eating disorders (the “Orange Juice” segment is masterful), gender roles, abuse and body positivity. The latter subject is dealt with powerfully in the “Strawberry Shortcake” segment, which literally finds Melanie stripped bare.
While some musical numbers are peppered with choreography and familiar music video tropes, others break the mold. “Nurse’s Office” gives us choreography on a gurney, while “Show & Tell” delivers puppetry. K-12 is at its most impactful, however, when tacking the overarching theme of being your authentic self. This is a film where the oddballs become heroes and the bullies learn their lesson. No characters are ostracized because Melanie is insightful enough to know that there’s a hero and villain in all of us.
One of the most exciting things about K-12 is the way it widens Cry Baby’s universe. While Melanie’s debut was inward looking, this time around she’s soaking up the world around her. And observing the struggles of her contemporaries and coming to terms with her own shortcomings. The fact that she also seems to be an alien hybrid gives the multi-hyphenate endless fodder for the next installment. It can’t be overstated what an epic achievement this is. Melanie has created a cohesive, funny, empowering film from scratch — and also delivered 13 bops.
Of the songs, standouts include “Wheels On The Buss,” “High School Sweethearts” and “Lunchbox Friends.” K-12 (the film) is available as part of Melanie’s K-12 (deluxe album), which drops on September 6. I would suggest watching the film before listening to the album to get the full experience. After all, that’s the way Melanie intended this era to be consumed.