January 31, 2023

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‘Going to Varsity in Mariachi’: Sundance doc looks at US-Mexico subculture

6 min read

In Mexican culture, when someone sings or plays a song that tugs at the heartstrings or provokes tears, the instinctive reaction is to let out a proud, exuberant shout. Grito. Adlib is rooted in age-old mariachi classics by legendary Spanish-language vocalists such as Pedro Infante, José Alfredo Jiménez and Vicente Fernández.

The ensemble-style genre has long been classified as traditional music, often heard at family parties or special occasions, but Osmosis Pictures’ production of “Going Varsity in Mariachi,” which premieres at the Sundance Film Festival today (Jan. 22), proves otherwise. Set out. James Lawler, Lewis A. From the producing team of Miranda, Jr. and Julia Pontecorvo, “Going to Varsity in Mariachi” follows the talented 20-member group of high school students who make up the Mariachi Oro 2021-22 team in Edinburg North, Texas. Under-resourced and beleaguered by post-pandemic constraints, the band competes for the title of the state’s best mariachi band under the guidance of coach Abel Acuna — a returning alumnus fueled by pride and passion for the iconic genre.

Mariachi Oro Texas faces tough competition across the US-Mexico border as students, from freshmen to seniors, grapple with a new year in their fast-paced teenage lives. For Alejandra Vasquez, who makes her feature directorial debut, and filmmaker Sam Osborne, the film’s layers were clear from the start.

In 2019, while filming a different project about high school wrestling, the pair were suggested to experiment with competitive mariachi music as the first officially sanctioned programs began to spring up across the state. “I think we always knew that the themes — mariachi, music and competition — were for us to start digging into the lives of these kids and their lives growing up. [a U.S. border city]”says Osborne. “All ideas that came later arose from this environment.”

Miranda was instinctively drawn to the film’s coming-of-age plot, which she first encountered as a blind email from Lawler and the director duo. “We only hear stories of immigration and thousands of people coming from border towns,” he says. “Hearing a story about ordinary kids using music to advance their abilities and their futures? It was moving.”

Decisions about the role of immigration politics in the doc were made early in the filmmaking process. While Miranda’s background in the advocacy sector (“trust me, there are few people more political than me”) makes her a worthy political point person, the film finds its appeal in a much more subtle and natural way. “Politics is really about kids, and how they use music to move their lives forward,” he says.

“We talked about it often,” Vasquez adds. “We ask ourselves: ‘Is it our responsibility to bring the politics of immigration front and center to this story? There are refugee camps 20 miles away.’ But at the same time, we understand that the existence of parties is political in itself. This program has state-school tax dollars to celebrate traditional Mexican culture, and that’s how these kids — whether they’re first generation, second generation, third generation — are connecting to their roots and refusing to assimilate into monocultures.”

Numerous plotlines and character arcs are devoted to showcasing the trials and tribulations of individual students such as Drake, the new (and only). the guitar The player whose six-string acoustic bass is important to the band. And like every good coming-of-age story, there’s a romantic storyline between the two bandmates whose young love shines through in tender moments. There’s also Abio, a violinist and a senior whose ultimate dream is to leave his small town in search of freedom, though he plans to return to Texas to teach mariachi like Acuna.

“It’s funny because before I joined mariachi in eighth grade, I didn’t really like music,” he recalls. “There was something about it—I’d be on a long drive with my mom, and she’d start playing it, and I remember being so mad and going, ‘Stop it!'”

That all changed the day she attended a Mariachi del Oro performance in sixth grade and, as she describes it: “I can still remember feeling something click inside me. I fell in love with the music and how it felt. [Coach Acuña] It inspired me to become a music teacher because I felt safe in that room. And I want to do the same for my own future students.”

Acuna adds, “Many of my students become music majors and I think it’s because they see how much I love music theory. I love writing songs and I want to write songs in front of my students in class.”

Mexico City-based producer Camilo Lara (“Narcos,” “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” “Coco”), who composed the film’s original soundtrack, sees it as a major triumph. “I love the idea that families of all generations are open and encouraged to explore and understand their culture in a way that allows tradition to be reinvented. Mariachi has always been an art for all people, but it’s traditionally an underdeveloped genre,” he says. “To see it played by the younger generation – it’s incredibly exciting. When I watched the movie, it became clear that the focus was on the strengths of these kids. have been and how they live the way they do with these songs.”

No stranger to bi-racial combos, Lara came into the studio with a goal in mind: “I wanted to try to answer, ‘If that happens. [mariachi] Can American music evolve like that?’ Those traditional words have changed with the youth – that was my main idea.”

“One of the first things we talked about was the film ‘Ya No Estoy Aqui’ and how it made cumbia music great,” Osborne says. “We were hoping to achieve something similar with the score, where there’s a contrast between mariachi music and something else.”

The backing track of the film’s opening sequence is an example of this in action: over a compilation of iconic scenes from mariachi history, trumpets and strings play over an electronic beat, and throughout the film, swinging synths add color to tense race scenes and brutally honest dialogue.

“My secret weapon! It’s called the romantic trumpet,” says Lara. “It’s one of the few words used on many of my previous albums and when people hear it, they immediately recognize the sound of mariachi. I’m really proud of it because it’s a mix of someone playing and someone sampling it – you can hear it on songs like ‘Mexico’.

He added, “This is a really exciting moment for artists who are going back to their roots Tumbado or cumbia Guys, like the Sante Fe Clan, for example, who are experimenting with hip-hop; It comes from a very valid place and it’s really cool to see a new wave take on these types of genres. This is an exciting moment for the reimagining of Mexican music.”

“They’re being exposed to their culture,” Acuna points out, “it’s music they probably don’t hear, but they pick up on it so quickly because they’ve heard it before. I was excited for non-mariachis to see what we were going through — to really get to know this music and enjoy the big production that it is. All the things that happen in between are part of it, and that’s what I’m excited for the public to see.”

“Going Varsity in Mariachi” is set to be acquired and premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 22 in US Documentary Competition.

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