“Wanderland” and the Rise of the Indie Musical

Our idea of what constitutes a musical film is slowly changing, for the better


It’s some ways into the new movie Wanderland that you begin to suspect that it might be a musical. Eighteen minutes in, to be exact — when the nervous, painfully quiet hero Alex (Tate Ellington), desperately looking for a way to charge his phone (long story), finds himself in the home of a strange Long Island woman (Tony winner Victoria Clark) who suddenly starts singing to him. What’s funny is that at the exact moment you start to wonder if Wanderland might be a musical, you also start to wonder if it might be a horror movie.

Josh Klausner’s lively, lovely film, shot on a dime in and around the Hamptons, does not exactly have the trappings of what we think of when we think of musicals. Inspired partly by Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, partly by Homer’s The Odyssey, and partly by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Wanderland — which premieres at the Hamptons International Film Festival this Friday — follows Alex as he drifts through a weird night trying to make his way home, coming into contact with a whole host of local oddballs. It’s a strange, atmospheric little film, occasionally hopping genres and always keeping us wondering as to where it’s all headed.

It’s quite a change of pace for Klausner, who made his name as a screenwriter on Hollywood films like Shrek Forever After and Date Night. But that was sort of the idea: He says that after years of working in the mainstream and studio world (he started his career as an assistant to the Farrelly brothers, eventually becoming a second unit director for them), he felt he was “creatively dying” and wanted to get back in touch with his own voice.

Coming from a regimented world of carefully placed plot points and clear, preordained through lines, Klausner embraced with this film a drifting open-endedness. “When you work for so long in the studio system, for better and for worse, you kind of know the pattern that works,” he says. “So as you’re writing, you basically know where you’re going at every moment. I wanted to have the experience of writing again when I didn’t know where I was going — to once again have that feeling of discovery. I tried to make an intuitive movie.”

Klausner, who also wrote most of the film’s songs, says he doesn’t really think of Wanderland as a musical, but rather “a film with a live soundtrack.” The difference? “I feel like in a musical, the story progresses because of what the song tells you. Whereas in Wanderland, the songs are instances of reflection — they’re these moments where we take a breath, where we assess where Alex is. That’s one of the things I love about A Midsummer Night’s Dream — we’re on this crazy journey and then you have this song that makes everyone stop for a moment.”

I’d argue that this is actually a good reason why Wanderland makes for such a refreshing addition to the musical form. We so often think of musicals as big studio spectaculars in which people regularly burst into song — a rather archaic definition of a genre that, save for a couple of hot-ticket entries in any given year, has mostly been mothballed. Slowly but surely, the idea of what we think of as a musical has been shifting, and the emergence of low-budget, genre-fluid works such as Wanderland actually has something to do with it.

Today, for every Into the Woods or Jersey Boys or Beauty and the Beast, it now seems that there’s a God Help the Girl (the emo Scottish indie pop musical) or Bang Bang Baby (the surreal Canadian sci-fi musical) or The Lure (the Polish mermaid horror musical). Meanwhile, elements of the musical vernacular have seeped into a diverse range of films. When I first saw American Honey at Cannes in 2016, it struck me as a good example of a movie that functions much like a musical — it’s filled with dance scenes that often help express the characters’ inner thoughts and their complicated relations — without strictly fitting into the category.

That DIY quality has even revitalized more traditional expressions of the form. Before he made La La Land, Damien Chazelle made the ultra-low-budget Guy and Madeleine on a Park Bench, a no-budget vérité jazz musical about the breakup between a moody trumpeter and a shy waitress. And the best parts of La La Land — despite its decent-sized budget and studio imprimatur — also evinced this same handmade quality. (Anytime someone tried to slam Chazelle’s multiple-Oscar winner by claiming its choreography was rough, or that Ryan Gosling wasn’t a good dancer, I found myself defensively muttering, “Yeah, that’s what’s so great about it.”)

Musicals remain one of the most beloved and universal of film genres, even though in so many countries (except maybe India, where Bollywood keeps churning them out) they’re considered a throwback. In the United States, despite the success of recent movies like Chicago and Dreamgirls and Les Misérables and La La Land, many of us still associate musicals with the Golden Age of Hollywood, when movies like Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris were the industry’s heavyweights. But the musical should belong to now: Today, we are surrounded by more music than any humans have ever been in history.

“So often, we think of the musical as other,” observes Klausner. In Wanderland, we see Alex early on, alone at home, trying to watch a musical on his laptop — a fictional French one called The Last Streetcar in Marseilles, starring Catherine Deneuve (a nod to Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort). Little does he realize that he’s about to step into a real one. “We all do kind of live in a musical, with music all around us, and that’s beautiful,” the director says. “To me, that’s Alex’s journey, and his salvation. In a world where we’re all so disconnected, music is something that connects us all together.”