Mining Mexican cinema for its music: How songs and scores lend power to the picture
Every April, thousands of Mexicans flock to the grave of Pedro Infante. They bring flowers and tequila and sing songs made famous by the charismatic singer and film star who died in 1957. Many spend the night.
“He’s almost like a saint,” said Daniela Michel, director of the Morelia Film Festival in Mexico. “A lot of people in rural areas have pictures of Pedro Infante in their houses. That tells you a lot about the power of this man — the power of music.”
The Los Angeles Philharmonic celebrated the power of Mexico’s film history and its music Friday night with “Noche de Cine,” conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. It was a tour of the nation’s most important and emblematic movie songs and scores, beginning in the silent era and running through recent films by Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro G. Iñárritu.
Iñárritu curated the program with Michel. They’ve known each other for two decades, since Michel launched a festival for Mexican short films and the director, then in advertising, was a sponsor.
“Mexican cinema is very linked to Mexican music,” she said. “When you think about the themes from the golden age, films with Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante — all these wonderful Mexican stars who were also singers — even to this day, people from other parts of Latin America, even Gustavo Dudamel, know those songs. They’ve seen these films. Somehow, the combination of cinema and music is very strong in our culture.”
Michel combed through a century of music and chose to spotlight a score by Silvestre Revueltas — “the most important [Mexican] composer of the 20th century” — from the 1936 film “Redes” by “High Noon” director Fred Zinnemann. The most recurring name on the program was that of Manuel Esperón, who scored more than 500 films between the 1930s and ’80s.
“Some of these songs are almost like national anthems for us,” Michel said.
Some selections were accompanied by film clips, notably the work of director Emilio Fernández, who created a sweeping, romantic vision of post-revolution Mexico. A popular actor in his own right, Fernández was the model for the Oscar statuette.
“He made these beautiful films where you see the landscapes, and where obviously the music of Manuel Esperón also helped build this identity of Mexican-ness,” said Michel. “Fernández is well known as saying, ‘There’s only one Mexico: the Mexico I invented.’ That’s a lot to say, but that’s exactly how he felt.”
Michel and Iñárritu also chose the creepy compositions of Raúl Lavista, who created music for movies starring the masked wrestler Santo.
Lavista was like Miklós Rósza, who worked in big Hollywood studios, Michel said. “He could composer very elegant music, but also he could write something as foreign or as kitsch as el Santo music.”
The program also featured Gustavo Santaolalla’s score for Iñárritu’s 2000 breakout film, “Amores Perros,” and Javier Navarrete’s Oscar-nominated score for Del Toro’s 2006 dark fable, “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
Michel was surprised by how far-reaching the music of Mexican cinema is when she witnessed Salma Hayek bring a mariachi band to the gala dinner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival — and led an international, star-studded sing-along of Mexican standards like “Cielito Lindo.”
That folk song was popularized by Infante in the 1947 romantic comedy “Los Tres García,” but its power has proved timeless.
After the devastating earthquake in Mexico City last month, “every day when the workers stopped working, they all got together and sang ‘Cielito Lindo,’” Michel said. “Which just tells you how important Mexican film and music are for Mexicans, and how it bonds them together. Mexico sometimes is very sentimental — but that’s the way it is.”
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