Everything in the universe is accounted for. According to chemistry all matter continuously reinvents itself. In death, our bodies too enter a new phase. They become ash or earth. Or perhaps our bodies turn to mythical plasma that is enriched by memories, that is fueled by stories, that warp and weft into the fabric of our lives. This is the central and universal theme of the new animated film, The Book of Life. Produced by Guillermo del Toro and co-written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Jorge Gutierrez, the movie shares with the world the spirit behind Día de Muertos, a traditionally Mexican holiday blended from Aztec and Christian cultures, which celebrates the dead and in turn also exalts the living.
In the small Mexican town of San Angel, the general’s daughter, María (Zoe Saldaña), is beautiful and fiercely independent. Smitten by her, best friends Joaquín and Monolo vie for her love. The two could not be more different: Joaquín (Channing Tatum) is a strapping soldier, while Manolo (Diego Luna) is a sensitive musician. When La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and her husband Xibalba (Ron Pearlman), two spirits from the Land of the Remembered, take note of this love triangle, they place bets to see who will win María’s hand in marriage and set the lovers off into a wild and richly colorful adventure unlike any other.
The film is a first for newcomer Reel FX Studios and a big release for 20th Century Fox, who is all in on a October 17th opening just in time for the Mexican holiday. Part of its launch includes a soundtrack featuring re-arrangements of old classics as well as new tracks by Academy Award winning composer, Gustavo Santaolalla. Most notably, Diego Luna sings — a fact he was surprised to learn himself — and not just any song: Luna sings a ranchera version of Radiohead’s “Creep.” (Take a moment to let that sink in and hit play below for a clip.)
A track that according to Del Toro and Gutierrez was difficult to acquire since the band is generally reticent to release it due to its personal nature; Del Toro called it “the holy grail” of clearable tracks. Gutierrez thinks the band understood the film and that the feeling of alienation the song speaks of crosses borders. “’Creep’ spoke to me and it has spoken to every single teenager who felt that they didn’t belong, no matter where they come from,” said Gutierrez. Luna also sings the ballad “I Love You Too Much,” a track that Del Toro said is intentionally unadorned and not heavily produced in order for it to sound much like it would during a typical serenade.
Other soundtrack highlights include Cheech Marin, known for hit songs like “Earache My Eye” and “Born in East L.A.,” singing “Just a Friend” with Biz Markie. Plácido Domingo makes an appearance doing a version of the classic “Cielito Lindo.” (Guiterrez described taking Domingo’s call at two in the morning to agree to participate in the film as “surreal.”)
Anglo audiences will also get a taste of contemporary artists like La Santa Cecilia, Kinky and Café Tacvba, who bring a bit of jarocho, Mexican folk, and electronica to the mix. Lastly, do yourself a favor and take a listen to Santaolalla’s and Gabriel Iglesias’ version of “Do You Think I’m Sexy” in the style of a huapango.
For Gutierrez the soundtrack was opportunity to bring together an eclectic collection of songs that were the backdrop to his life; songs he loved as well as songs his grandparents loved. The soundtrack, like the film itself, is a love letter to his culture, his country, and his family. “The secret in talking about death is that you’re really talking about life.”
The Book of Life opens in theaters on Friday, October 17.