A phantasmagoria situated between "The Magic School Bus" and Pink Floyd's "The Wall," Melanie Martinez's movie musical "K-12" carries more ideas about authoritarianism, individualism, peer pressure, patriarchy, body image, toxic relationships and the positive uses of anger than any 24-year-old singer-songwriter-screenwriter-director could reasonably be expected to have. Debuting digitally Friday after a global screening the night before at theaters including the AMC Stony Brook 17, the film, set in a surreal school, bursts with ideas that make the relationship dramas of a Katy Perry or a Selena Gomez song seem a little just-get-over-it, y'know?
"My main goal was to make school a metaphor, like a condensed version of life," the Baldwin-raised Martinez, who gained national attention as 17-year-old in 2012 when she reached the Top 6 on NBC's "The Voice," says in a phone interview from Los Angeles. "I think in school we encounter a lot of scenarios with different kinds of people and then we encounter those same kinds of personalities in our adult life. And we have to learn lessons and repeat cycles till we really learn those lessons."
With torn-from-the-headlines topicality, for instance, one African-American student who doesn't stand during the Pledge of Allegiance gets hauled away by two security thugs. "The villains are these people at the top of the system who are abusing their power," Martinez says. "They're representative of people who are in power right now, in this Administration."
Martinez actually had backed into the idea of shooting a movie. Her original plan was for her second album, the newly released "K-12," to be seen as whole rather than as a collection of singles. That's not unique bands have done storytelling concept albums since the 1960s likes of The Who's rock opera "Tommy." But in these days of the music single's ascendancy, it's an ambition more closely associated with the old guard rather than with a Multitalented Pixie Dream Girl.
And so, "I really pushed for a video for every song on my album," she says, after directing several for her platinum debut album, "Cry Baby" (2015). "I wanted people to listen to it from the very beginning to the very end." String them together with a highly stylized narrative involving a nefarious boarding school where student uniforms are Hansel-and-Gretel-wear and some young women exhibit strange powers, and you have a 92-minute movie. Martinez plays Cry Baby, the titular persona of her previous album, who with her friend Angelita (Emma Harvey) navigates and rebels.
The surface seems precious — exteriors were shot at the baroquely ornate Esterházy Palace, called the Versailles of Hungary, and the Oct. 29 to Dec. production also utilized that nation's Károlyi Chateau of Fehérvárcsurgó, Duna Palota Theater and Szabo Ervin Library — but the surface is deceiving: Angelita uses a butterfly knife to kill a rapey science teacher, and Cry Baby leads a revolution that takes down the abusive bureaucracy by every means necessary.
Not that Martinez's upbringing was rebellious. Her parents Jose and Mery— "M-e-r-y," she spells it out, since fan sites and Wikipedia had misspelled it "Mercy" — and her younger brother Joseph were supportive of her, as was the Baldwin school system, known for its music education. "With some of the teachers," she remembers, "I would be able to do things like instead of writing an essay I could write a song about [the topic] and all I had to do was play it in front of the class. And that is something I will be forever grateful for."
Next month begins an international tour that plays the Manhattan Center Hammerstein Ballroom on Oct. 29. And, constantly, there are song to write.
"My process is a little of an out-of-body-experience," she says, a not-unfamiliar experience for many writers. "I genuinely feel like I am not there in that moment and it's like I'm just receiving information and putting it down. As I look over it, I notice a lot of my own thinking that I wasn't even aware of, in front of me on the paper. I don’t know how to explain it." That’s OK. Just keep giving us songs like "High School Sweethearts," where if a beau betrays you, "I will rip your [expletive] face apart."