Elliot Goldenthal,
(Universal, 2002)

Of the 50 or so movies I saw in 2002, I would easily consider Frida to be one of the top three. If you are not familiar with Frida, this film is about the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. To quote the promotional material, "in addition to being a great artist, Frida Kahlo was also a bisexual and a communist, struggling with an abusive husband, a life of wracking pain following a trolley accident, the amputation of a leg, and finally, drug and alcohol abuse that killed her at age 47."

Hmmm. After that description, what could possibly attract Americans to watch a film about the painful life of a bisexual, communist painter (whom they had probably never heard of before) from another country? Two words: Salma Hayek. I have to say that I was totally taken by surprise with this film. Not only were there many well-known actors (Antonio Banderas, Ashley Judd, Ed Norton, Geoffrey Rush and Alfred Molina), but the cinematography was creatively fantastic at artistically introducing the works of Frida to new audiences. Even more notable, however, was what role the soundtrack played in this film.

The soundtrack is what this review is going to focus on. Simply put, the music is tightly coupled with the film itself. Much of the music is performed "live" within a given scene. In other words, a great portion of the tracks are not background noise aimed at subtly shifting the viewers mood in the desired direction. Instead, the musicians play for the viewing audience, but in a much different way than in a "musical" (such as Moulin Rouge or Chicago). For example, the musicians might be performing at a party or a bar. They are as much a part of the scene as the other actors, but they don't simply stop talking in order to belt out dialogue in the guise of a song.

I won't list all 24 tracks, but I will focus on a few favorites. Salma's character gets drunk during a scene in which she starts singing "La Bruja." She has a decent voice and is a very convincing singing drunk. The CD, by the way, is enhanced and has some background video including a session where Salma is practicing this song. I was intrigued with the way soundtrack composer Elliot Goldenthal coached Salma to increase the passion in her vocals for this performance.

I have to mention Chavela Vargas. This elderly Costa Rican lady looks like she is about 120 years old! Her voice cracks with the signs of old age. Yet, the bar scene in which she performs "La Llorona" will make an impression on you. This is one of those scenes that you will be talking about after you see the film. What makes the scene even more intriguing is that Chavela is playing to Salma's Frida when Chavela was one of the real Frida's lovers many decades ago. I was happy to find that Chavela's powerful performance translated nicely to the CD. Also of note on the soundtrack is that Chavela sings "Paloma Negra." This track was recorded about 40 years ago. Contrast her vocals between the two tracks.

Lila Downs sings on four tracks: "Alcoba Azul," "Estrella Oscura," "Burn It Blue" and another version of "La Llorona." Of these, I like "Alcoba Azul" the best. In the movie, the scene revolves around a party. Ashley Judd, whose character (Tina Modotti) is an Italian photographer, has promised a dance to the one, of several men, who can down the biggest shot of tequila. Frida joins in, bests the men and proceeds to have a very seductive dance with Tina. This scene is on the enhanced CD. I cannot help but picture it whenever I hear this track.

Goldenthal does a fantastic job of incorporating Mexican folk music into this soundtrack. The catch is that the music is so tightly tied to the story that it might not be entirely accessible to the casual listener.

I am sure that most of you are familiar with some of Goldenthal's other soundtracks: Interview With a Vampire>, Michael Collins and Batman Forever. In the case of Frida, I recommend seeing the film before purchasing the soundtrack. It is a wonderful film and if it grabs you like it did me, you will understandably be putting the soundtrack on your list of must-have CDs.

- Rambles
written by Wil Owen
published 15 March 2003

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