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SONIC DEATH MONKEY SOUNDTRACK REVIEWS - Once Upon a Time in Mexico & Down With Love

by Natasha Theobald

This week we are headed south of the border with ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO, now in theaters, then to 1960's New York, with a modern twist, DOWN WITH LOVE, out Tuesday on DVD. Both soundtracks are marked with a distinct style, and both are remarkably adept at capturing the tone and flavor of the films which they support.

The director of Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Robert Rodriguez, also takes responsibility for the music of the film. In the liner notes for the CD, he talks about his process. He was able to write the music as he wrote the script for the film. He wanted a Latin orchestral sound, as well as Spanish guitars and rhythms. The music for the film is essential, as the main character, El Mariachi, is a musician, a guitar player, which informs his character to a great degree. Rodriguez also asked his actors, many of whom are musicians, to contribute music befitting their characters. This resulted in a vocal performance from Salma Hayek, a bass line from Ruben Blades, an embellished main theme from Antonio Banderas, and "Sands Theme," courtesy of Johnny Depp and his own Tonto's Giant Nuts. Variations of that particular theme were used by Rodriguez, in differing forms, throughout the film.

The disc starts with a piece from Brian Setzer, of Stray Cats and Brian Setzer Orchestra fame. Its main focus is a fast-paced electric guitar with Latin flavor, but the song includes several different sounds and approaches. The pace is unrelenting, insistent, and powerful - a good start for this film.

Texas native Patricia Vonne, known for her "ranchera rock 'n' roll," brings her vocal talent to "Traeme Paz," a heartfelt song with an amazing guitar solo at its center. I must apologize, as my Spanish is too limited to be of much assistance with lyrical content. In fact, knowing some Spanish is just as useful as knowing no Spanish in this situation. Picking out every third word is okay, but it's hard to get a firm idea of the intent or a feel for context. "I think I heard something about a grandmother" isn't as useful as one may think. Lo siento.

South American guitarist Marcos Loya is on board with "Yo Te Quiero," which means "I want you." The sound is fuller and more contemporary than some of the other included tracks. Juno Reactor's "Pistolero" progresses in the same vein, sounding thoroughly modern. The guitar is still present with voices occasionally pitching out a "Pistoleros" call, but this sounds more like techno-influenced dance music at its core. The modern touch is continued by Manu Chao, a leader in Latin Alternative music, with his offering "Me Gustas Tu," or "I like you." The song is funky and original, mixing a modern sound with a more traditional-seeming vocal line. The lyrics, once again, escaped me to some degree, but I did catch "Me gusta marijuana" in there somewhere. It is certainly something new in the "My Favorite Things" school of sharing. Salma Hayek's song, "Siente Mi Amor," is seductive and imploring. She has a lovely, low voice full of emotion and grace.

Texas band Del Castillo, led by guitarist brothers Rick and Mark, gives us "Dias de Los Angeles." It begins with the return of a haunting vocal introduced, courtesy of Alex Ruiz, in the score piece "Eye Patch." The rhythm, though, is different, and the song has a celebratory feel. The pace continues to accelerate throughout until it reaches a nearly unbelievable, and utterly impressive, speed and vivacity. By contrast, Tito Larriva, who plays the cab driver in the film, and Steven Hufsteter offer "Flor De Mal." The sound is moody, full of yearning and regret. Once again, I can't tell you what they were saying, but the music spoke of an anxious sadness and emotion-filled remorse.

Among the score pieces, we have "Guitar Town," a song full of foreboding. The sound is created by a full orchestra undercut with a burning electric guitar, then simplifies to an acoustic guitar. "Church Shootout," which occurs shortly after, has a heart-quickening pace. The music is full of action and drama, functioning as part of the gun battle, and ends on a crescendo to a high-pitched note. "The Man with No Eyes" leaves the listener with a feeling of being isolated, fearful, and dangerous. "Mariachi vs. Marquez" is filled with tension which slowly builds, aided by dramatic strings. "Chicle Boy" is, again, fearful, pursued, tenuous. "El Mariachi," the theme of our hero, is caught in the sounds of a simple guitar. The music is beautiful and sad, full of longing and resignation.

"Sands Theme," written by Johnny Depp for his character, is, like Sands, a mixture of contrasting elements, an acquired taste. It makes use of horns, playful and slightly unpredictable, with a bit of black humor, perhaps. These are played over driving lower sounds which resonate and linger. The song, like the guy, is cool, dark, grinding, layered, driven, and not easy to pin down.

"Coup De Etat" supports an important event in the film. It starts low, with brief, off-kilter sounds of something awry. A lovely guitar melody begins only to be overtaken by percussive sounds, the drums of a march to battle. The heightened drama is apparent in the low, insistent sounds of strings which become sharp and choppy, frenzied over the melody, shrieking to a final high.

The disc ends with a bonus track, "Cuka Rocka," which takes the recognizable "La Cucaracha" melody out for a bit of a spin, exploring it musically in many different ways. The soundtrack, as a whole, is successful, because it finds a way to intermesh the traditional and the modern, scored music and vocal-driven songs. All of this is interspersed with bits of dialogue which guide the listener through the story and make clear the music's intent.

The music from Down With Love also transports the listener, to a different time, another world. Like the movie, the music is old-fashioned with a modern edge. It is cheeky and charming - playful - with a sweet center and love, or sometimes lust, on the brain.

Michael Buble is a strong presence on this disc. The 25 year-old Vancouver native began singing this type of music for his grandfather and has become known for his way with a classic tune. I can see this launching him in the same way that Harry Connick Jr. found fame with When Harry Met Sally.... He is talented and attractive and well-deserving of the good things this may bring. If you like his stuff, he has a disc out with standard favorites, as well as covers of "modern classics" from groups like the Bee Gees and Queen.

Buble opens the disc with Holly Palmer, singing "Down With Love." The tune is catchy and energetic and captures the tone of the film with flair. The lyrics explain where the film jumps off, but, for all the fluff and fun, the music has a richness and 60s hip factor that put the audience in exactly the right place to begin. Buble's other offerings on the disc include "For Once in My Life" and "Kissing a Fool." To the former, he gives his strong, rich voice, but he doesn't try to overcomplicate things. The combination of simplicity and a distinct sound gives this old favorite a new spin. The performance on "Kissing a Fool" slows things down a bit, in a good way. Buble lets his voice drip over the music, offering levels of emotion without being pushy about it. The song is more soulful, and his voice settles into the corners of your mind before you realize it has been invaded.

Another more soulful entry comes from Canadian duo Esthero. The vocals are pleasing, and the sound is utterly modern, while also giving a necessary nod to music past. The piece from the "King of Rhumba," Xavier Cugat, with his orchestra, maintains the existing energy of the included music while adding a little flavor and funk. The sound is less straight-laced and more dance-worthy. It mixes things up in a great way.

There are two versions of "Fly Me to the Moon" included with the soundtrack. The first has Frank Sinatra performing the song with Count Basie and his Orchestra. The rendition is a classic which certainly needs nothing by way of explanation or complement from me. The second version comes from Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto, who, in 1963, hit the top five in the United States with her vocal on "The Girl from Ipanema." Her take has a hipster beat. The smooth, female vocal glides over a less earnest, more atmospheric interpretation.

Marc Shaiman created the original score for the film. You may recognize the name, as he was an Oscar nominee, alongside Trey Parker, for "Blame Canada" from South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. He won a Tony in 2003, with Scott Wittman, for Hairspray. Clearly the man has humor and talent to bring to his work. Here, he is able to maintain an energy and studied lightness that is perfect for the film. He has a light touch with the material, and his efforts are essential to creating and maintaining the mood.

"Barbara Arrives" features a flurry of activity over a sweet melody. It is old-fashioned in the best possible way. "Girls' Night Out" introduces a "ba doo ba doo wa" female vocal that is breathy, sweet and airy like cotton candy, and it will stick in your brain. "Barbara Meets Zip" marks a turning point in the movie, when each character is using trickery and cunning to try and outplay the other. All of this can be heard in the music, which manages to remain light, playful, while adding an element of knowing, winking at you, digging in just a bit.

"Love in Three Acts" is the centerpiece. It starts with flirtation, falls in love, encounters difficulty, then settles in for resolution and release. The energy is still high, but there are more things going on to start. It seems to be wrapping up previous elements of each of the characters, while adding new things to the mix. The music then slows with a single horn (sax?) line, followed by piano. The end returns to a richer, fuller sound. It is bold, more confident, and marks conflict resolved and a possible renewal on a different level entirely.

The last song, on the soundtrack and in the movie, was written by Shaiman with lyrics by Shaiman and his Hairspray cohort Wittman. It winds up the action in the voices of the characters, and the vocal performances are contributed by newfound soundtrack bastions Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor. Their voices sound good together, and there are nice harmonies written in to showcase it. The words are seductive, filled with innuendo, like the movie itself, and, as such, the song is a fitting ending to the proceedings. Included with the disc, in fact, is the music video for this, "Here's to Love."

One word of warning: while this soundtrack is about romance, the music will not get you laid. It is pre-sex music. It will plant the seed, perhaps, but you need to follow with some dirt if you want anything to grow. I think you know what I mean.


link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=809
originally posted: 10/04/03 19:05:11
last updated: 03/04/04 21:37:08
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