Friday, February 1, 2013

Festiva # 3

Chris Strachwitz produced this fascinating documentary feature on South Texas music in the 1970's and we all should thank him for it. Strachwitz, a German-born American citizen is a fountain of information regarding regional music. Strachwitz had been collecting Spanish music since the 1960's and wanted to do a film as a love letter to "Tex-Mex music". To complete his cinematic vision he acquired the services of filmmakers Les Blank and Maureen Gosling. They would go on to shoot it in Texas, in a variety of places that include Austin, San Antonio, Eagle Pass, and our neck of the woods here in the Rio Grande Valley. A few years after this film, Blank and Gosling would go on to film the highly acclaimed "Burden of Dreams", with Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski.

This film turned out to be a revelation, exposing documentary film goers to legendary talent on both sides of the border. The film features iconic figures like Lydia Mendoza, Narciso Martinez, Los Alegres de Terán, Rumel Fuentes, Don Santiago Jimenez, Ramiro Cavazos, and Flaco Jimenez. This soundtrack is really a time capsule that showcases many different styles and eras of border music. The film does a graceful job of highlighting the unique features of each individual musician as the film flows effortlessly from one great talent to the next. At several points in the film, we see small glimpses of the Valley like the Del Valle Record pressing plant, local cantinas (bars), and a bodega de cebolla (onion factory) in McAllen. One of the highlights was seeing conjunto pioneer Narciso Martinez working at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, feeding the animals as his fast pace accordion music is playing on the soundtrack.

But this film isn't just about the music, it's about the border lifestyle. It intimately sets out to explore and capture the social life, the dancing halls, the family, the migrant farm workers, the weddings, the delicious food, the stories of racism and so much more. This is a genuine emotional piece that attempts and succeeds at celebrating Mexican-American culture. J. Hoberman, one of the most recognizable film critics in the world, would later proclaim this film as “Blank’s most emotionally complex film."

The DVD comes with the companion film "Del Mero Corazon", which has beautiful, haunting voice over work by Maria Antonia Contreras. Special features include extended deleted scenes from both films and additional musical performances. It also contains informative essays and commentary tracks by Strachwitz, Blank, and Gosling for both "Chulas Fronteras" and "Del Mero Corazon". The commentary discussion is lead by Strachwitz, as they discuss how they shot the footage and the backgrounds of the musicians.

If you're a fan of documentaries, this is one of the greatest of all time. This film and DVD also serve as a gateway to all the wonderful regional music documentaries that Les Blank and Maureen Gosling have created in their journeys.

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