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Rudy Mancuso's 'Musica' brings viewers inside the sensation of rhythmic synesthesia


There is so much in Rudy Mancuso's new film "Musica" that children of immigrants will find so familiar - the pressure to do well in school, get a real job and marry someone within the community. But Mancuso, who plays himself in this semi-autobiographical film, resists all of this. He can't quite give up on his music or his puppet shows or his white girlfriend, despite constant reminders from his mom that she would like to see him with a Brazilian woman instead.


MARIA MANCUSO: (As Maria) Don't you worry. I'm going to introduce someone perfect for you. Can I introduce someone perfect?

RUDY MANCUSO: (As Rudy) I already told you, Mom. I'm not ready.

CHANG: And if all this pressure weren't enough, Mancuso also has synesthesia, a neurological condition that can cause sensory crossovers. It's something that Mancuso has personally lived with for as long as he can remember, and he wanted to capture the experience cinematically as the co-writer, director and composer for this film.

R MANCUSO: To my surprise, synesthesia has something like a hundred different iterations and counting. I used to think that there was just chromesthesia and that was all-encompassing, which is more particularly a unique relationship to color.

CHANG: Like, when you hear sound, you see color.

R MANCUSO: Yeah. So I associate an identify with something like three predominant types - rhythmic association, which is the one that's depicted the most in the film. Then there's linguistic personification, which is very commonplace amongst bi- and trilingual people. There's, as I said, chromesthesia, which is not my foremost experience but I have a little bit of experience with. And I was so fascinated by the phenomenon in general. There are synesthetes who I've spoken to who can taste Tuesday...


R MANCUSO: ...Who can smell the number five. It's incredibly unique...

CHANG: Yeah.

R MANCUSO: ...Interesting, for some people torturous. For others, it's advantageous and an asset to their lives and creativity. So in exploring and researching this condition, I not only realize I have more than one type of it, but it was a fantastic backdrop for storytelling.

CHANG: Well, you mentioned one kind of synesthesia that you experience - rhythmic, which, I've come to understand after watching your film, is when your brain organizes sound - just normal, mundane sounds like a broom or a basketball bouncing - into a rhythm, right?

R MANCUSO: That's exactly right. Yeah. So my brain will obsessively try to turn sounds that I hear like you just described - everyday, regular, mundane sounds - into some kind of musical construct, whether I try to find the melody through the tone of a specific ring of a bell or I try to find the rhythm in, as you see in the film, basketball hitting the ground.


CAMILA MENDES: (As Isabella) OK.

R MANCUSO: (As Rudy) Do you hear the bounce?

MENDES: (As Isabella) Yes.

R MANCUSO: (As Rudy) Listen for more.


CHANG: I loved this scene. But let me ask you. How challenging was it to externalize something so internal? Like, was it hard to make the synesthesia that's happening inside your head come alive on a screen for other people to feel and experience?

R MANCUSO: The simple answer is quite hard. But it was kind of an education for everybody because when I told them, I want 99 microphones; I want to mic everything from the basketball to the broom to the basketball rim to the jump rope, they looked at me like I was absolutely nuts.

CHANG: (Laughter).

R MANCUSO: And I am. I really was going for a hundred percent because if I'm going to attempt to depict synesthesia, which is a multisensory experience, I better do this for real.

CHANG: Yeah. You know, there's so much else in this movie that traces your real life, as you say. You mentioned you shot it in the neighborhood where you grew up, the Ironbound in Newark. You even filmed in the house you grew up in, I understand. And your on-screen mom is your real-life mom, Maria Mancuso. Why did you feel you had to cast your real mom for that role?

R MANCUSO: Well, for the same reason I wanted to mic every broom and pan. I really wanted to cast my mom because it's just that much deeper into the world of authenticity and realism. Who could play my mom better than my mom? She's a naturally hilarious, energetic, unapologetic, gifted performer and doesn't even know it.


M MANCUSO: (As Maria, speaking Portuguese).

R MANCUSO: (As Rudy) Because, Mom, I'm not normal.

M MANCUSO: (As Maria, speaking Portuguese). Normal - nothing's normal. We are not normal.

CHANG: But was your mom easy to direct?


CHANG: Nope. Tell me why not.

R MANCUSO: I can't say it was easy. It was a blast, and I'll do it a million times over. But we all know what it's like working - no matter how close your family members are...

CHANG: Oh, yeah.

R MANCUSO: ...It's tricky. It's tough. You know each other's triggers better than anyone, especially my mother, who doesn't have a performance or acting background, which, to me, is the best part of her performance but, from a technical standpoint, can be quite anxiety-inducing. She couldn't memorize lines, for instance. She didn't understand what blocking meant. She, in the middle of a take, would tell a crew member, can you please take your shoes off? - 'cause you're scratching the floor.

CHANG: (Laughter).

R MANCUSO: So all these things that...

CHANG: Sounds like my mom.

R MANCUSO: Yeah. It sounds like a lot of our mothers. And it was that level of wall-breaking that made the performance arguably the best part of the film.

CHANG: Yeah. Wow. Your mom is such a good sport.

R MANCUSO: Sure is.

CHANG: Did she, in real life, used to pressure you to abandon the puppets, abandon the music, get a real job, marry a Brazilian woman? Is all of that true?

R MANCUSO: She was very supportive of my creativity and musicality and passion for puppetry and music. But she also - there was another side of her as somebody who never went to school and graduated college. And she really wanted her children to pursue all those things that she was, in her life, unable to pursue. So she was very adamant about me going to school and finishing...

CHANG: Yeah.

R MANCUSO: ...Which I didn't. She was very adamant about me studying and getting good grades, which I didn't. She was very adamant about me getting a job and getting experience working and earning money, which I didn't.

CHANG: Well, now you're earning some money (laughter).

R MANCUSO: A buck or two.

CHANG: Well, we have been talking a lot about art imitating life, but when it came to love, life imitated art, right? You and Camila Mendes ended up falling in love while making this movie. And I'm sorry. I know this is NPR, not TMZ, but everyone else seems to be talking about it, so I feel like I can acknowledge it. Was that a surprise - to find love while making this film?

R MANCUSO: Absolutely. So to my surprise, I met Cami for this project. And there were very few people in the world who could satisfy this role, and she's one of them. I mean, a Brazilian American who's smart, who's talented, who's charming, who could play the Brazilian girl next door, who's super-grounded - I mean, she ticked every box and more. So by the time we met physically, which was two days before principal photography...


R MANCUSO: ...It felt like I had known this person for years. So the chemistry you see in the film, as we're getting to know each other...

CHANG: Is real.

R MANCUSO: ...Is quite real.

CHANG: That is so lovely. But most importantly, does your mom approve of the choice of Camila (laughter)?

R MANCUSO: Oh, she's over the moon. I mean, come on. You saw the movie.

CHANG: You got your good Brazilian American woman.

R MANCUSO: I know. I know. She, like me, related to her immediately. I mean, she was a fan of hers. She loved that she could speak Portuguese and English. Their chemistry was equally as strong.

CHANG: Rudy Mancuso's new movie is called "Musica." This was such a pleasure, Rudy. Thank you so much, and congratulations on this film.

R MANCUSO: Thank you so much, and thanks for watching. Are we done already? I was just getting started.

CHANG: (Laughter) That is it.

R MANCUSO: Oh, wow.

CHANG: That is it. "Musica" is now streaming on Prime.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kathryn Fink
Kathryn Fink is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Sarah Handel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.