‘Encanto,’ ‘Parallel Mothers’ scores explore life, death while tapping Spanish roots

Composer Alberto Iglesias leans in close to a piano.
The score of “Parallel Mothers” is the 13th collaboration between composer Alberto Iglesias, pictured, and director Pedro Almodovar.
(From Alberto Iglesias)

By sheer coincidence, two of this year’s nominees for original score are for films with Spanish roots — and are, at their core, about maternity. Both scores reflect the musical traditions of their respective cultures, and are given rich authenticity by composers with heritages outside of Hollywood.

“Parallel Mothers” is the 13th collaboration between composer Alberto Iglesias and director Pedro Almodóvar, a partnership that began in 1995. They still work in much the same way: Iglesias reads the script, but waits until Almodóvar is done shooting and editing — a simultaneous act — before he composes.

They watch the film together on a big screen, Iglesias said, and “I feel all the emotions I can detect.”


This film stars Penélope Cruz as Janis, a photographer who persuades an anthropologist to excavate her grandfather’s remains from one of the many mass graves from the Spanish Civil War. She also sleeps with him, has a baby and befriends a young new mother, Ana (Milena Smit) — whose life and baby become intertwined with her own.

Iglesias saw a “big line that starts in the childbirth, and finishing in the common graves. I don’t know if they are two parallel lines, but one means life and the other means death. And I thought that music can be in this contrast.”

He immediately began by thinking about the end of the film, and came up with music that isn’t a requiem but something more complicated. He introduces that theme when Ana comes to live with Janis in the middle of the film.

“So the music starts to live with us in that moment,” he said. “It’s a theme that gives this shadow for the end, but at the same time a kind of hope.”

Iglesias scored the childbirth with a lively dance inspired by Spanish pop music from the 1930s, “because the film is about how to find the voice of the ancestors and give this voice to the next generation. I think it’s a film about love.”

The beat is kept by a tambourine, which has traditionally been played by women in Spanish celebrations. “It’s very subtle,” he said, “but there are secret little things that maybe the spectator can associate with life.”


The middle of the film is “suspended in the decisions and in the storm Janis has,” he noted, and he chose to score it like an old Hollywood suspense film from the 1930s or ’40s — imagine the scenes in Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho” where Marion Crane is living with her guilty secrets.

Iglesias wrote for a spare string quintet, with opportunities for solos by woodwinds and piano. Where he needed a more singing, breathing quality, he recorded a larger string ensemble at London’s AIR Studios.

There’s an overall feminine quality to the score, Iglesias said: “The music takes care of the characters, like a mother to a child.”

Scoring for Almodóvar is always a pleasure, he said, because “he needs music, and he loves music.” The director’s films “have a rhythm, a dreaming side, that makes music very natural — not more fantastic but more real. The music is something coming from the subconscious.”

Composer Germaine Franco at poses at the "Encanto" premiere.
Composer Germaine Franco is a lifelong percussionist, and she distinguished different “Encanto” characters with unique rhythms.
(Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)


Fantasy and realism coexist in Germaine Franco’s score for “Encanto.” Disney’s animated musical features a grab-bag of songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, but the emotional and dramatic heartbeat is in the instrumental score.


And beat it does. Franco is a lifelong percussionist, and she distinguished different characters with unique rhythms from the film’s Colombian setting. She gave the main character, Mirabel, a plucky joropo — which becomes identified with her search for answers as to why the family’s magical house is falling apart.

For Mirabel’s cousin Antonio, she wrote a rhythm inspired by the Choco rainforest, performed by an Afro-Colombian choir and a special marimba she had shipped from the Choco region and played herself.

“It wasn’t a documentary, so we had some license,” Franco said. “It wasn’t like every single score cue is only a Colombian rhythm. It was just more trying what works to the picture, what works with the emotion of the scene. It was more about what is driving the storytelling.”

The effect, though, is transporting. Like the thick ambiance of insects and birdsong and the vibrant palette of tropical colors, the score plunges viewers into a specific locale in a way that’s almost tactile.

“You can’t walk anywhere and not hear music in Colombia — it’s impossible,” said Jared Bush, who directed the film with Byron Howard. “You walk down the street, you’re surrounded by it. But it feels very organic and like it’s live in the moment. And I think trying to capture that vibe is something that Germaine did. It’s a proper film score, at the same time it feels very organic and real and I’m hearing it like there’s live musicians playing it.”

Still, this is a Disney fairy tale, and the centerpiece of Franco’s score is a theme for the miracle that enchanted the family Madrigal and their magical casita. It’s a melody that reveals hidden layers as the audience learns about the miracle’s tragic cost for the family’s matriarch, Abuela Alma.


“We wound up with that melody,” said Franco, “because [the directors] felt there was a little bit of pathos to it, because of the grandma’s loss — but also it could be transformed into beauty and magic.”