We all know that there’s a lot more to Latin music than just salsa and narcocorridos. There are as many genres and styles of music played throughout Latin America as as there are slang words for money or beer — maybe more. The mainstream music industry in the United States and your run-of-the-mill gringo neighbor may not know this but for us here, at Remezcla, that’s our pan con mantequilla. So, when we tried to put together a list of music documentaries we purposely focused on diversity, trying to include as many genres as we could in this limited space. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of uncharted territory, local sub-genres, emerging scenes, and whole countries with rich musical traditions that still don’t have a decent documentary to represent them. So, this is in no way a definitive list and we secretly hope it will motivate young filmmakers to go out with their cameras and expose the truly heterogeneous nature of our music.
Searching for Sugar Man
A couple of years ago, you probably hadn’t heard of Sixto Rodriguez. Now, thanks to this Oscar-winning documentary, go into any vinyl store and his records are some of the first you can expect to see. This is the story of the 1970s American folk singer known simply as Rodriguez, an unknown in his own country but a star to white liberals in apartheid-era South Africa. In spite of his fame, little was known about what became of the musician, other than persistent rumors he had died onstage several years previously. Malik Bendjelloul’s film follows two South African fans as they seek to discover the mystery behind the Sugar Man.
Seguir Siendo: Café Tacvba
“When you have a band like that, to me it’s the closest thing to The Beatles.” As praise for Mexico’s Café Tacvba, this may be sincere but it’s also exaggerated. However, as this film shows, there can be little doubt of the band’s global popularity thanks to a distinctive sound which merges classic rock ‘n’ roll with Mexican influences. This film follows a year in the life of Café Tacvba as they embark on a 20th anniversary world tour. It’s as much hotel corridors and long distance phone calls as screaming girls and whiskey but it offers an engaging look at life on the road for one of Latin America’s biggest bands.
Malditos: La Historia de Fiskales Ad-Hok
Santiago, 1986: under the military dictatorship of General Pinochet, state repression and human rights abuses are entrenched in Chile. Young people are frustrated and angry but, until now, they have had little means of expressing their grievances. But new generations are less cowed than their predecessors and it was into this environment that Fiskales Ad-Hok emerged, channeling the rage of millions of disenfranchised young people into the raw force of the underground punk movement. The band provided a figurehead for cultural resistance and Fiskales are now regarded as the most important Chilean punk band of all time. Malditos tells how they rose to become a powerful symbol of the anti-establishment.
Ciudad Juarez, on the Mexican-US border, is infamous for the drug violence that has made it one of the world’s most dangerous cities, with an annual murder rate in the thousands and where bloodshed and chaos are everyday realities for beleaguered inhabitants. Yet the vast wealth and power of the traffickers has allowed them to build their own cult of personality as pop stars and film stars. This unsettling and extremely graphic documentary follows narcocorrido singer El Komander, who waves a bazooka around on stage in front of screaming fans at cartel-organized concerts. Needless to say, these are places where you wouldn’t want to spill someone’s drink.
The immense influence of Brazilian music has its arms wrapped around the world like some kind of amorous octopus, from the early Broadway samba of Carmen Miranda, via the seventies radiance of bossa nova and tropicalia, to the more recent blending of traditional rhythms with external elements of hip hop, electro and funk. Brazil’s rich heritage has elevated national music to the forefront of global consciousness, and Beyond Ipanema provides a comprehensive examination of this phenomenon, particularly in the United States. Featuring contributions from musicians as diverse as Gilberto Gil, David Byrne, Bebel Gilberto, CSS, Caetano Veloso, Devendra Banhart and M.I.A., among others, this is an essential film for anyone with even a vague interest in Brazilian culture.
Buenos Aires hardcore punk – El documental
Starting with the first expressions of Argentine punk rock, during the last years of the military dictatorship, the documentary covers, through multiple interviews and well-researched archival footage, the evolution of the genre and its diversification, finding its climax in the early ‘90s with the birth of an underground scene called Buenos Aires Hard Core. While many of the artists and bands mentioned might not have recognizable names outside Argentina others, like Todos Tus Muertos, Attaque 77, Fun People and El Otro Yo enjoyed cult following throughout the continent. P.S. Yes, that one girl is Patricia of Kumbia Queers.
A cara de perro zoo – La película
Before Eminem’s movie 8 Mile popularized competitive freestyle rap in Latin America, there was in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, a local MC called Mustafá Yoda who preached the art of improvised rhyming in Spanish to the younger generations and built around him a whole movement. Produced by Mustafá himself, the documentary is not about him or his immense impact in that scene, but about the new generation of kids who see freestyle glory in the cyphers and local championships as their main goal, instead of just a stepping-stone towards a career in recorded rap. A Cara De Perro Zoo is the name of an annual freestyle competition and young rappers from Buenos Aires, Córdoba and Rosario meet there to put their skills to the test on the microphone and at the end the new reigning Argentine freestyler is crowned.
Saudade do futuro
Saudade do Futuro takes place in São Paulo, Brazil, but follows the daily life of a bunch of Nordestinos who made this city their own, and brought with them their characteristic culture and music. Nordestinos come to the big, modern megalopolis from the poorer states in Brazil’s northeast and are sometimes discriminated by the native Paulistas and relegated to menial jobs. The musical menu includes accordion-driven forró and embolada, an improvised competitive rhyming style similar to freestyle rap that “poets” spit over a syncopated tambourine beat. Without any narration and minimum interference from the camera and crew, the movie does very little explaining and introduces no characters, leaving many questions unanswered for the foreigner and uninitiated.
Rio de Janeiro’s infamous favelas are the setting of this moving documentary. Focusing more on the sociology than the music per se, Favela Rising exploits the post-City Of God first world fetish for Afro-Brazilian slums culture by following the charismatic Anderson Sa, a reformed street kid who finds in music the power to transform his life and, subsequently, the lives of thousands of other kids who grew up, like him, seeing drug-trafficking as the only viable source of income and respect. Unfortunately, the trite movie scoring doesn’t match the favela aesthetics at all and Anderson’s musical accomplishments and the subculture of baile funk are barely glanced over in favor of grimy stories of drug lords, blood, guns and corrupt police.
Jessico, una historia de rock en tiempos convulsos
Babasónicos sixth official album, Jessico, is widely considered the band’s biggest breakthrough, a before-and-after moment in their career, the one album that marked the end of their underground cult status and launched them into the mainstream. Paradoxically, it also coincided with the end of their major label contract and the departure of one of the band’s members. Most importantly, it was recorded during the infamous 2001 economic debacle that submerged Argentina into total chaos and released right when the local record industry was going belly up. Through interviews and never before seen archival footage, the documentary follows the band during this era of utmost historical significance for Argentine (and by extension Latin American) rock. Unfortunately it has not yet been released internationally.
La Lupe: Queen of Latin Soul
It’s a tragic tale of rags to riches, then back to rags again. La Lupe: Queen of Latin Soul gives us a window into the life an artist whose passionate, irreverent style broke taboos and gave the world a truly singular voice. From her humble beginnings in Santiago de Cuba, to her lavish lifestyle as the Queen of Latin Soul and finally to her untimely death in poverty and obscurity, La Lupe’s life and work is explored through interviews and archival footage, accompanied by a dance-worthy soundtrack featuring some of her most classic hits. Cameos by Johnny Pacheco, Mongo Santamaría and Tito Puente round out the bill with some serious star-power.
Buena Vista Social Club
A white American flies to an impoverished Latin American country and saves their national treasures from abandonment and neglect, giving them new life after decades of obscurity. It’s not hard to see why Buena Vista Social Club just doesn’t sit right with a lot of Cubans, but damn is the music good. Politics aside, this must-see documentary follows musician and producer Ry Cooder as he ‘gets the band back together’, so to speak, weaving an inspirational tale about second chances as he rerecords Cuban classics with the titans of yesteryear then takes them on the road to Carnegie Hall. You’ve all heard the albums, this is how it happened.
Our Latin Thing
This is the salsa documentary, the movie that launched a movement. From the streets of El Barrio and Loisaida to the ballroom of Midtown’s Cheetah Club, Our Latin Thing brought the New York sound to world. Shot in run-and-gun style and filled with frenetic energy, this doc focuses primarily on a star-studded 1971 concert at the Cheetah Club, featuring a jaw-dropping who’s who of golden-age salsa together for the first time. In all, twelve singers vie for the audience’s affection, backed by the likes of Ray Barretto and Willie Colón. Interspersed with scenes of barrio street life, Our Latin Thing is the original East Coast Latino swagger. Hook this one up to your surround sound and get ready to dance.
Nosotros la música
Never before and never since has the diverse panorama of Cuban music been captured with so much style and cinematic flare. Filmed in the heady days of the 1960s, Nosotros la música is impregnated with the experimental spirit that put post-revolutionary Cuban cinema on the map. From the urban solares and callejones of the country’s interior, to the flashy nightclubs of Havana and finally to the rural jam sessions and church meetings of the island’s eastern mountains, director Rogelio Paris goes deep into the soul of Cuban music and finds a stunning diversity too often glossed over by foreign film crews. This is self-representation at it’s best and a must-see for any fan of Cuban music.
Las marimbas del infierno
What happens when a metalhead who left his satanic lifestyle for Judaism, a middle-aged marimba player on the run from MS13, and a glue-sniffing prison escapee get together to form a band? Las marimbas del Infierno. This docu-fiction hybrid achieves unexpected levels of dead-pan hilarity as it follows these unforgettable characters on their quest for a new sound and along the way, for their own redemption. While the film does pay tribute to the dying art of the Guatemalan marimba, the music itself takes a backseat to the quixotic adventure of an unlikely trio who hit rock bottom, and found each other along way.
Hit shows interviews, raw footage, and unique anecdotes from the artists who made history or were there to see it. Highlighting the Fattoruso brothers, formerly known as Los Shakers, a band who became famous by emulating The Beatles (they even sang in English) and signed their rights away to the music industry, made it to the other side to tell the tale. Also, Eduardo Mateo, an experimental musician and genius to his peers ‘born before his time’, is best remembered as composing one of the most popular kid’s songs of his generation. Members of No Te Va Gustar, La Vela Puerca and more talk about how musicians from the late 50’s into the 80s shaped the way they saw their country and developed their sound. Made on a shoestring budget, Hit is a condensed look at an influential time in Uruguay’s history.
Latin Music USA
Thanks to PBS, we get the history of Latin music in the United States condensed into an easy-to-watch four hours. The documentary shows us the birth of boogaloo, jazz’s influence on Santana and rock ‘n’ roll, the rise and fall of Fania Records’ salsa revolution, the wave of Chicano music starting in the 60s, and artists like Selena, Linda Ronstadt, Ricky Martin, Ritchie Valens, Gloria Estefan, Shakira, and so much more. Even for those who grew up listening this music in their homes from an early age, Latin Music USA shows us just how big an influence our heritage has had on the history of American music.
Living Off the Wall
As part of Vans’ “Off The Wall” campaign, director Angela Boatwright makes a series of quick, fun, and heartfelt mini-docs showing us backyard punk shows, bloody moshpits, projectile vomiting, and teenage kids in the East Los Angeles punk scene. In one episode we meet Nekro, frontman of East LA band Proyecto Macabro, who performs in backyard shows, moshes, then goes to sing a ranchero with his abuelita at her home. It goes from being a genre to a complete lifestyle and at times cathartic. Anthony, Lauren, and Nekro all share their unique stories about how punk rock saved their lives.
Director Gabriel Noble discovered then nine year old Priscilla, rapping at a NYC nightclub at 2:00 AM. We find out that Priscilla is a determined little girl with star power and wise beyond her years. Jesse, a single father is determined to make his daughter a star. Then we realize that he is probably trying to make up for his own failed attempts at a rap career. P-Star Rising, filmed over four years, gives us an intimate look at a family and what they sacrifice in order to make it. We follow the Diaz family in and out of shelters, confronting their estranged drug-addicted mother and then witness what happens when your dreams start to come true.
Esperando a los Bitles
Fans of The Beatles come in all shapes and sizes and they usually are a very quirky urban tribe. Since The Beatles never performed in Mexico and the international press never bothered to interview their Mexican fans or ask them about their amazing underground music and paraphernalia barter network, Mexican Bitlemaniacos had been in the dark for ages. The world had never heard their voices or seen their faces, until now. Shot mostly in Mexico City, Monterrey and Liverpool Esperando a los Bitles has everything you can expect from a human interest documentary: lots of laughs, a few tears, and that one amazing moment when chilangos meet fans of the Beatles from Japan for the very first time.
It’s a common misconception that Latin American punk or Latin American rock, for that matter, is a marginal phenomenon. It’s looked at like an import that came to the region way after its masters and creators had already become tired of it, while the wide-eyed children of Latin America were barely starting to learn how to play their instruments. There is nothing further from the truth. Saicomanía is a now legendary documentary about Peruvian band Los Saicos. It went around the world slapping audiences in the face with a provocative question: did punk actually originate in Lima, Perú and not in London or New York as they’ll have us believe? If you want to know the answer stop whatever you’re doing and watch it now.
Chulas fronteras is a documentary by the late Les Blank about a world with which I’m too familiar: the region around the border between Mexico and Texas. The title is taken from a song made popular by Eulalio González “Piporro,” a musical legend in Monterrey, and “chula,” which means pretty, was what my grandfather used to call my grandma. Chulas fronteras is being preserved in the National Film Registry and in it, Blank, also known for his documentaries about Herzog, goes deep into the roots of Tex-Mex and norteño music. The Germans brought polka and the accordion to the region in the 19th century but the Mexicans brought it all to a whole different level. A must-see classic!
El Médico: The Cubatón Story
The doctor is in the house! A Cuban doctor tries to enter the vicious world of international music record companies and is willing to risk everything: his medical career, his dreams, and even his relationship with his mom. But when he’s confronted with the realities of transnational post-capitalism, exploitation, the objectification of women’s bodies, and money his simple dream of bringing Cubatón to the masses reveals itself to be truly complex and problematic. This film will not leave you indifferent but trust me, it also won’t allow you to take a simplistic approach on the issues it raises. El Médico: The Cubatón Story is totally worth watching.
Gimme the Power
Even if you think you don’t know them you may still know Molotov as the band that provided the soundtrack for one key sequence in the pilot for Breaking Bad with their song “Apocalipshit.” This documentary tries to put the rise of Molotov in the context of Mexico’s historical struggle for more freedom from oppression. Even if it doesn’t provide a solid narrative – it’s goes a little too far back in history and ideology – it’s still a great source for becoming more familiar with the history of rock music in Mexico in general and with the workings and struggles of this amazing Mexican band.
Mercedes Sosa: The Voice of Latin America
An intimate portrait tracing Mercedes Sosa’s forty year career as a folk singer, from her start in Argentina to her tours around the globe, this doc features emotional interviews with her family, closest friends, and collaborators together with archival footage of her most notable performances. Having sold millions of records, she attained worldwide commercial success all the while leading the charge to call out the dictatorship in her home country. As a member of the Nueva Canción movement, a group of Latin American musicians whose lyrics had strong political messages, she became known as the “voice of the voiceless.” Narrated by her son, this stirring portrait of her life and career gives an in-depth look at her start as a singer, her loves and heartbreaks, plus her motivations and inspirations. It’s a must-see for any Mercedes Sosa fan and a great introduction to her music for newbies.
In July of 2009, after their explosive rise to fame Puerto Rican band Calle 13 traveled through South America in a quest for identity. After their first tour René Pérez (a.k.a. Residente) felt the need to take a closer look at América and its social realities. Always keeping their sharp humor, they found indigenous communities in three different countries, mining hell-hole towns, and impenetrable landscapes that inspired their next album. Sin Mapa takes a close yet concise look at a journey that took Calle 13 to the next level. It was that space they gave themselves that marked the stark change between the Calle 13 of “Atreve-te-te” and the Calle 13 of “Latinoamérica.”
Marcelo Machado’s 2012 documentary uses remastered archival footage splashed with acid-colored tones to explore the “mistura” (mezcla) of sounds, trends and moments that morphed into Brazilian “Tropicalismo.” Composed by taking a close look at the mid to late 60s (mostly focusing on the influence of Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil) Tropicália uses news clips and rare footage featuring Hélio Oiticica, Elis Regina, Maria Bethânia, Gal Costa, Tom Zé, Jorge Bem & many others. From the back channeling of managers and producers trying to define the genre, to the performers’ involvement with politics and society, Tropicália is a piece that shows both stormy and carefree moments of the movement.
Luca, la película
Rodrigo Espina’s documentary follows the brief life of Luca Prodan, Italian-born frontman of the Argentine underground punk band Sumo. With Luca’s voice taken from recorded letters that he would send in cassettes to his family in Italy the film records his ecstatic energy through the late 1970s and 80s as well as the testimonies of those around him that saw him escape continents and wage war against his heroin addiction. Luca Prodan’s chaotic lifestyle was perhaps unavoidable but willingly or not, he essentially brought punk to Argentina.
The life of José Vicente Asuar is a fascinating journey into the world where music and technology meet. Carlos Lértora’s documentary on Asuar dives into the development of electroacoustics during the past quarter century in Chile all while narrating Asuar’s invention of the COMDASUAR, the machine that became one of the predecessors to MiDi technology. Not only that, Variaciones espectrales manages to simultaneously be a concise, sonorous and visual meditation as well as an archive of electronic music history.
Hecho en México
Hecho en México looks to reflect on the mexicanidad in daily life beyond the negative image of the country that is dispersed by the media. The documentary discusses, through a variety of musical performances and crisp sound editing, issues of violence, resistance, gender and spirituality in the country. Duncan Bridgeman’s work with footage featuring La Chavela, Marco Antonio Solis, Carla Morrison, Plastilina Mosh, Natalia Lafourcade and many more is a positivist and frank journey through México and its people.