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Bittersweet melodies of Agustín Lara in Güeros

The story of four teenagers on a quest to locate their ailing musical idol requires a mix of nostalgia, myth, apathy, and disillusionment. Played out across the vast urban expanse that is the City of Mexico, Güeros is conceived in the alternative deadpan style of Jim Jarmusch’s early films or, perhaps, Wim Wenders’ mid-1970s road movie triology. Director Alonzo Ruizpalacios chose a self-consciously cosmopolitan yet at the same time distinctly Mexican sound to convey the journey — the songs of Agustín Lara (1897-1970). For the Spanish-speaking world, Lara’s music tends to inspire feelings of melancholic romance along with a fondness for a now distant past.

In Sombra, Santos, Tomás, and Ana’s journey in search of the older musician, brilliant use of Lara’s compositions create emotional and cultural depth in his main characters, effectively revealing disappointment and loss with a deeper longing for love and personal meaning as the brothers “come of age.” In particular, Lara’s “Azul” and “Palmera,” evoke a tropical, mid-twentieth century feeling closely associated with the eastern port city. Other songs such as “Palmera,” “Imposible,” “Tus pupilas,” “Farolito,” and “Veracruz” similarly establish a romantic tone during certain scenes in Güeros.

As the film unfolds, Tomás leaves his mother and home in Veracruz (with guitar in hand) to go live with Sombra in Mexico City. During this transition sequence, the song “Azul” plays, sung by the popular composer’s most beloved female interpreter (Veracruz native) Toña la Negra. In portions of this section, the soundtrack features a heavy echoing of Toña la Negra’s recording that reflects the anxiety Tomás is feeling as he first arrives in the capital.

Shortly thereafter, a version of “Veracruz”–this time with Lara playing and singing–is heard as the boys sit idly outside their apartment complex, smoking cigarettes and talking. Interestingly, the tune features lyrics that fondly remember the port town with its faraway “palm trees,” “beaches” and “star filled nights.” In the song, the singer pledges to “return one day.”

Big city adventure calls, however, and the next moment, Sombra notices Tomás listening to music on his portable cassette player in a parked car. He looks at the tape case and sees the name “Epigmenio Cruz.” “You still listening to this?” he asks his younger brother. Tomás nods, “Yes.” Shortly thereafter, the two brothers and their friend Santos are seen sharing the headphones, dreamily listing to Cruz. Their mission is now set.

Publicity still of three boys sharing headphones

As they make their way through among the tall glass buildings of the city’s southwestern sector, a verse of Lara’s “Imposible” as sung by Toña la Negra is heard. Their quest may be a difficult one but they are determined despite a deep sense of alienation.

Night falls and the boys come to the gates of the National University where the student strike is in full flower. They enter the main auditorium where organizer Ana is giving a passionate speech. As the three make their way, an innocent, childlike rendering of Lara’s “Azul” (now performed by contemporary singer songwriter Natalia Lafourcade) is playing. Ingeniously, Lafourcade’s version (she is from the Veracruz town of Coatepec) is mixed with the older, classic recording by Toña la Negra, thus blending Mexican musical past and present.

Ana then meets up with Somba, Santos and Tomás as they once again pile back into the car. The opening bars of Agustín Lara’s lighthearted classic “Farolito” (or “Little Light”-as in street light) plays as young Tomás watches Ana freshen up in the front passenger seat. The camera closes in on Ana’s eyes and lips as she applies her make up. Older brother Sombra also watches her with affection. Appropriately, “Farolito” continues to be heard in the background as our adventurers cruise the central city late at night. Street performers, drunks and garbage collectors move amidst the shadows.

Tomás, Sombra, Santos and Ana briefly attend a party celebrating the debut of a film. “Farolito” is still heard, now mixed with surreal electronics and conversation. Not long for the gathering, the four are soon back outside. Toña la Negra’s rendering of Lara’s tropical song “Palmera” plays in the open air as Ana playfully pushes Sombra in a nearby pool. The others quickly join in, frolicking in the water until a security guard comes and asks them to leave.

Ever persistent in tracking down the fabled musician Cruz, the boys and Ana eventually find Epigmenio in a cantina in Texcoco—to the east of the central city. Disappointingly, a sour-faced Cruz rejects the young man’s request. In Tomás’ defense, Sombra steps forward, informing the musician that the cassette was once their father’s. Shortly thereafter, the film ends as Lara’s tune “Veracruz” is heard one final time. They boys no doubt are disappointed in their musical idol but are nonetheless reunited as brothers, friends, and (in the case of Ana and Sombra) perhaps even lovers.

The ever-romantic Agustín Lara has long been associated with Mexican cinema. Now, with Güeros added to an already impressive filmography, one can imagine the composer would be pleased to learn his songs continue to inspire both artists and audiences worldwide.

Featured image: publicity still from Güeros, courtesty of Catanoia Films.

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