Sep 12, 2010

Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Once More With Feeling

After reviewing The Body last week, it is now time for the other episode deserving of a review of its own - Season 6's brilliant musical Once More With Feeling. By far my favorite episode in the entire show, it was something Joss Whedon wanted to do since the very beginning of Buffy, but it was in Season 6 that it seemed the time has finally come. Again, WARNING! This review spoils both the ending of Season 5, and the beginning of the next one, so if you don't wanna be spoiled, steer clear!

Ok, let's jam.

A special kind of demon has been summoned in Sunnydale - one that makes everyone burst into song (and occasionally - in flames), revealing all their secrets in an unrestrained expression of emotion. This leads to some very dramatic revelations for all the Scoobies, as things they've kept hidden from the others come to surface all at once.

Once More With Feeling is a tremendous achievement, especially considering the fact that Joss Whedon has no formal musical training and had to teach himself to play the piano to be able to accompany the tunes. Although series veteran composer Chris Beck helped with the arrangement, all the songs are original Whedon creations (he worked an entire summer on this episode) which he initially recorded with him and his wife singing all the vocals. The episode is a tribute to the many different styles of musical theater of which Joss is a huge fan, and features great variety of songs. It has to be noted that at the time, only Anthony Head (Giles) and James Marsters (Spike) had prior singing careers, and from the rest only Amber Benson (Tara) is really gifted vocally. And yet, although obviously (at least to a professional musician like myself) lacking experience, the entire cast manages to do just fine with their numbers, particularly Sarah Michelle Gellar who has the biggest share of singing.

Once More With Feeling opens with a cheesy and twinkly old style re-imagining of the usual rock theme, as we see the full moon and the smiling faces of the cast projected on it, while their names are written with dramatic red letters next to them. Next, follows the typical musical opening scene, where the retro clock starts ringing, and characters begin their day with no audible dialogue. Then we get to the first number - Buffy's Going Through the Motions. Whedon explains that it is the purpose-defining song that a heroine simply has to have in a musical, present for example in every Disney classic with a girl protagonist. However, Buffy sings only of her desire to somehow find any purpose, if only to save her from faking life after being forced back into it.

Practically all the songs in the episode deserve to be mentioned, but that would be boring, so I'll just point out the highlights. Emma Caulfield's rock opera anti-bunny intrusion in the group number I've Got a Theory is absolutely fantastic, as is her duet with Nickolas Brandon - the retro-pastiche I'll Never Tell, where they both describe grudgingly all the little things that bother them in the other, and express their fears of a life spent together. James Marsters' moody rock song Let Me Rest in Peace, where Spike finally shows Buffy the depth of his feelings for her and his frustration at her ambiguity towards him is also brilliant - Marsters oozes sex appeal all over the place, and it is instantly obvious he has a lot of singing experience.

The surprise of Once More With Feeling is Amber Benson's I'm Under Your Spell, which, apart from being tragically ironic in the context of the previous episode finale, is also an eerily beautiful ballad where the actress shows tremendous musical talent. Meanwhile, this love song features the dirtiest lines Joss has ever written for Buffy, with gems like "lost in ecstasy, spread beneath my willow tree" thrown around the more innocent verses. Although not really my type of performer, Hinton Battle (playing the singing and dancing demon Sweet) cannot be ignored. Battle is a Broadway veteran, and his moves and voice are perfect for the show-tune villain he plays. The episode features cameos from executive producers Marti Noxon and David Fury (both of whom also appear in Whedon's other musical - the internet sensation Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog), and Noxon is particularly delighting as the woman on the street desperately serenading a police officer not to give her a ticket for inappropriate parking.

Just like The Body before it, Once More With Feeling is shot in a drastically different way than the rest of the show. The camera angles and the sets are often reminiscent of music videos (Let Me Rest in Peace), or classical musicals (Overture, Going Through The Motions). A particularly bright example of this is Xander and Anya's I'll Never Tell, where they both wear very stylish and retro looking bed clothes (Xander's flapping silk pyjamas are a little masterpiece of kitsch, and Anya's crimson mini-skirt, bra and fluffy high-heels are the hotness), and the camera has that arc-shot going diagonally above the characters (you know the one, and Whedon knows it too; he mentions it specifically in the commentary of the episode).

It is ironic, but being so bright, colorful and hilariously awesome, Once More With Feeling is also perhaps the most serious episode in this already quite serious season. Season 6 deals with the traumatic experience that is real life - the stuff that you cannot slay, that you cannot escape - and so it is a stroke of true genius that the very hub of this depressing wheel is, in contrast, a cheery musical episode. Make no mistake. None of the songs, even the funniest and lighthearted ones, is just for fun. They all move the plot forward, develop the characters further, or bear some hidden subtext. Willow's unhealthy addiction to magic leads to the fracturing of her relationship with Tara, while I'll Never Tell sows the first seeds of the very whedonesque development of Xander and Anya's story-line (it is Whedon's one huge flaw, the one that not even the most devoted fan could deny - his raging intolerance for happy endings when it comes to relationships). But it is Buffy's final revelation that completely shatters the Scoobies' world - the fact that they did not save her from Hell, but instead dragged her away from Heaven.

Of course, the very final few seconds of the episode - just before the heavy curtain falls and a huge "THE END" fills the screen - are also pivotal for the entire show. It is the beginning of Buffy and Spike's dysfunctional relationship. One that would define Spike until the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as the entire final season of Angel.

So, obviously, Once More With Feeling is not only a brilliantly executed musical (and one that smugly gives an actual reason for people just randomly bursting into song, although perhaps this is the only show in the universe where that would make sense), but also one of the most important episodes in the entire show, setting up story-lines that would go to its very end in Season 7 and beyond, spilling into Angel and the comic book Season 8. But before it is all those things, the episode is an awesome triumph of music - of song and dance - and of the whole spectrum of emotional broadness that inevitably follows it. It captures the very essence of what makes Buffy The Vampire Slayer the unparalleled treasure that it is, and symbolizes the true scope of what Joss Whedon is actually capable of, when given the opportunity and resources.


P.S. Also, the Mutant Enemy monster at the end of the credits actually sings its "Grr-Argh" this time. Awesome!

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