By Jacqueline Avila
Día de muertos (Day of the Dead) is a Mexican holiday that celebrates the memory of the dead, taking place the evening of October 31 and ending November 2. During this period, people remember their departed loved ones, creating ofrendas (altars) adorned with marigolds, photographs of the deceased, sugar skulls, and pan de muerto (Day of the Dead bread). Although a popular tradition, its incorporation in Mexican cinema is underwhelming. Films from the 1930s, such as Sergei Eisenstein’s ¡Que viva México! (1931) and Janitzio (1934, dir. Carlos Navarro) incorporated Día de muertos into their narratives, exhibiting rites and rituals of the event. Later fictional films featured narratives about crossing over to the Land of the Dead, including El ahijado de la muerte (The Godson of Death, 1946, dir. Norman Foster) and Macario (1959, dir. Roberto Gavaldón). Recently, the practices and iconography of Día de muertos has swept through the United States. Hollywood, whose visual and narrative representations of Mexicans and Mexican culture have focused on narco violence, kidnappings, and brutality, have jumped on the bandwagon to provide their own cinematic representations of the holiday.<1> The newest film to take up the reins is Pixar Animation Studio’s Coco (2017).
Coco is a visually stunning film that tells the story of young boy named Miguel who ventures into the Land of the Dead. Miguel aspires to be a musician much like his deceased idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), but his family, who have been forbidden to perform music by the deceased matriarch Mamá Imelda (voiced by Alanna Ubach), encourage him to continue in the family business of shoemaking. In pursuit of his dream, Miguel is magically transported to the Land of the Dead during Día de muertos where he encounters his deceased family members transformed as calacas (skeletons), who again forbid him to become a musician. He evades their clutches with the help of the calaca Héctor (voiced by Gael García Bernal), who encourages his musical talents and guides him through the Land of the Dead. What follows is a narrative that explores familial relationships, the precarious nature of tradition, and the process of forgiveness. In addition to this, Coco is brimming with fantastic references to Mexican popular culture, including popular colloquialisms (“No manches”), luchadores (masked wrestlers), la chancla (the infamous flip flop that functions as a threatening tool used by mothers), and humorous cameos of surrealist painter Frida Kahlo (1907—1954), whose paintings have been the subject of numerous exhibitions internationally, and whose image has become part of the cultural capital of Mexico. While all these elements and references paint a vibrant tapestry of Mexican culture, at the heart of the film is music and Mexico’s cinematic epoca de oro (Golden Age).
The epoca de oro is a period in cinematic history (roughly 1936—1952) that showcased a rising star system, box office success, and the development of film genres that became crucial components of national filmmaking, such as the comedia ranchera (ranch comedy) and the revolutionary melodrama. The films, players, and music from this period are still significant fixtures in Mexican popular culture and Coco evokes this in numerous ways.<2> The most apparent is through the characters and their musical performance, which pay homage to the musical film genre the comedia ranchera and its singing macho charro (Mexican cowboy). Miguel wants to follow in the footsteps of actor and musician Ernesto de la Cruz, whose character is loosely inspired by the career of epoca de oro actor Pedro Infante (1917—1957). Infante personified the charro in comedias rancheras and provided his velvety voice and signature gritos (cries) to many rancheras and ballads. His tragic death in 1957 sent the country into national mourning. De la Cruz mirrors Infante. His persona, his confidence, and his ability to charm the crowd construct him, much like Infante, as a cinematic and musical icon, and a national treasure.
De la Cruz’s legacy is initially shaped by the film’s theme song “Remember Me,” which also functions as a nostalgic anthem for the protagonists, but in contrasting ways. De la Cruz’s ranchera-inspired interpretation is introduced in a black and white film clip, which shows him performing on a large stage. The lyrics, written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, describe the bittersweet parting of two people and the desperate need to live on in one’s memory:
Though I have to say goodbye
Don’t let it make you cry
For even though I’m far away I hold you in my heart
I sing a secret song to you each night we are apart.
The lyric’s melancholy sentiment becomes buried underneath the quick tempo and vibrant orchestration, complete with blaring trumpets, strummed guitars, gritos, and female backup singers. The music here moves away from the musical characteristics of the epoca de oro, which typically did not consist of such heavy instrumentation and dramatic flourish. This performance, rather, mirrors more of a Hollywood musical construction from the same period. As De la Cruz sustains the final note, the large decorative bell above his head comes crashing down on him, sending him to the Land of the Dead and forever associating “Remember Me” as both his signature (or exit) song and his last words. Although the song ends tragically, it is no question that De la Cruz’s polished performance showcases him as an attention seeking star and a darling in the national imagination.
Other iterations of “Remember Me” offer more emotional significance. Héctor, we find out, is the song’s real composer. The song was originally intended not as a showy piece for the stage, but as a slow and charming lullaby for his daughter Coco, who is Miguel’s great grandmother. In a flashback, a living Héctor sings the first two verses accompanied by acoustic guitar to the young Coco. This segment is brief and encapsulates the tenderness and love that the song’s lyrics depict. This feeling continues when Miguel, back in the Land of the Living, sings the song to Coco, now elderly and confined to a wheelchair. It is here that the film tugs unmercifully at the heart-strings as Miguel slowly sings the lullaby to coax Coco into remembering her deceased father. Coco (voiced by one of most well-known actresses of cine mexicano, Ana Ofelia Murguía) gently begins to sing along, her deep and raspy voice blending with Miguel’s, bringing the memory of her father back to the living while preserving his existence in the Land of the Dead.
Coco’s song list consists of mainly original music by the film’s numerous composers.<3> One exception, however, is “La llorona” (“Weeping Woman”), a son istmeño from the Isthmus of Tenhuantepéc that is performed in the film entirely in Spanish. Based on a popular folk legend, “La llorona” tells the dark story of a woman who kills her children by drowning them in a river after she is betrayed by her lover. Her ghost wanders the countryside typically at night, crying out for them. Ana Alonso Minutti notes that while this son is well-known and traditional, there is no “authorative” version; verses are added and/or reordered in performance.<4>
In Coco, “La llorona” is performed by Mamá Imelda who turned into a calaca Catrina (an elegant or well-dressed woman), reflecting the art of José Guadalupe Posada (1852—1913). While she was alive, she believed her musician husband left her and their child. In her grief, Mamá Imelda forbids her family from listening to and performing music, believing music to be the root of evil. Mamá Imelda’s interpretation comes at crucial moment in the narrative, taking place at the Sunrise Concert that commemorates the beginning of Día de muertos. In escaping De la Cruz on stage, she begins singing self-consciously and timidly. While beginning slowly and with rubato, she quickly speeds up the tempo and is joined by the orchestra, turning the ballad into a lively and rhythmic number with implied zapateando (tap dancing). She is soon accompanied by De la Cruz, who takes over the performance and brings the son to a dramatic end with his declamatory gritos. Mamá Imelda’s performance serves as a turning point for her and her family. In singing this son, she becomes La llorona; she was, in her mind, abandoned by her husband. Although she did not kill her children, she did kill music for her family, filling them with her own bitterness and resentment.
The performance of “La llorona” by Mamá Imelda links to other cinematic interpretations in both Mexico and Hollywood. Variations of this son have been interpreted by performers including Eugenia León in the Día de muertos inspired short film Hasta los huesos (To the Bones, 2001), which features a calaca catrina melodramatically singing the son; and also two crucial performances in the pseudo bio-pic Frida (2000, dir. Julie Taymor), one by the versatile Lila Downs, and the other by Chavela Vargas (1919—2012). Vargas’s performance of “La Llorona” and her intimate relationship with Kahlo have recently been part of a presentation completed by Ana Alonso Minutti for the University of New Mexico Art Museum.<5> In these performances, “La llorona” becomes an anthem for women, and an anthem for the dead and Día de muertos. Its inclusion in Coco as well as the other embellishments of Mexican popular culture function together to create a love letter for Mexico, making this Pixar’s most culturally relevant film to date.
<1>Films that have references include Frida (2000, dir. Julie Taymor) and Spectre (2015, dir. Sam Mendes). The animated feature Book of Life (2014, dir. Jorge R. Gutiérrez) is more specifically set during Día de muertos.
<2>In addition to cameos by a calaca Frida Kahlo, the film also references a calaca Mario Moreno “Cantinflas” and the luchador Santo.
<3>Michael Giacchino composed the original score while the songs were composed by Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez, Germaine Franco, and Adrian Molina.
<4>Ana R. Alonso Minutti, “Chavela’s Frida: Emancipatory Songs of Love and Pain,” University of New Mexico Art Museum Insight Lecture Series in conjunction with the exhibition “Frida Kahlo—Her Photos” and the 15th Annual Southwest Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, October 17, 2017.
Dr. Jacqueline Avila is an Assistant Professor in Musicology at the University of Tennessee. Her research focuses on film music and sound practice from the silent period to present and the intersections of identity, tradition, and modernity in the Hollywood and Mexican film industries. She is currently writing her book manuscript titled Cinesonidos: Cinematic Music and Identity in Early Mexican Film (1896-1952), which is an examination of the function and cultural representation of music in the Mexican film industry.