Mike Gallegos for NPR
Since the early days of Hollywood, Latin American composers have created theme songs and soundtracks for some of the most classic movies and TV shows.
A century ago, Maria Grever was a maverick in the male-dominated film world. She had studied with French composer Claude Debussy before returning to her native Mexico where she wrote boleros that were wildly popular throughout Latin America. Then, Grever composed songs for movies in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.
In the 1944 MGM musical Bathing Beauty, Colombian baritone Carlos Ramírez sings Grever’s song Te Quiero Dijiste (accompanied by Xavier Cugat and his orchestra) to actress Esther Williams just before she dives into a swimming pool. The song was translated to Magic is the Moonlight.
Grever wrote another song, Cuando Vuelva a Tu Lado, about missing her husband during the Mexican revolution. Translated to What a Difference a Day Makes, the song became a staple of Hollywood films (Dinah Washington won a Grammy award for her R&B rendition in 1959).
In the 1930s and ’40s, renowned Mexican composer and musician Agustín Lara also wrote beautiful songs for movies. His Solamente Una Vez became a hit in the U.S. as You Belong to My Heart. It was covered by Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley and many others.
Lara’s first American film composition was for the 1938 picture Tropic Holiday.
“The film itself is about a Hollywood screenwriter who’s looking for inspiration in Mexico. Then, the film features music by a Mexican who’d come to Hollywood to record it,” says professor Josh Kun, interim dean of the USC Thornton School of Music.
Kun says film studios turned to successful Latin American composers like Lara and Grever for authenticity. But more often, they would appropriate generic “Latin sounds” and rhythms– “either making Latin America feel safe to Americans, make it seem romantic, or increasingly, make it seem dangerous.”
Kun says then and now, films would often use tropical music for any Latin American setting. “This idea that there would be one sound was a problem then and frankly, is a problem now. That one set of sounds becomes a sonic stereotype.”
Even so, there were Latino film composers who innovated soundtracks. For example, Argentine-American composer Lalo Schifrin created one of the most iconic 1960s TV themes ever for the show Mission Impossible.
Schifrin has blended jazz and Latin American rhythms and sounds for more than 100 film and TV shows. The 90-year-old composer once described to NPR his ideal musical style: “There’s an imaginary world in which a street of Vienna intersects an avenue from New York. And in that corner, there is a tavern. And in the tavern, there is a piano, and there you can encounter Gustav Mahler, Beethoven and Dizzy Gillespie, and they are exchanging ideas. It’s a gigantic jam session.”
Gustavo Santaolalla was also born in Buenos Aires, 19 years after Schifrin. He pioneered the fusion of rock and Latin American folk with his group Arco Iris, he modernized tango with his group Bajofondo, and he produced Latin alternative and rock en español hits for Maldita Vecindad, Molotov, Café Tacuba, Julieta Venegas and Juanes.
Santaolalla also composed music for films such as Amores Perros and The Motorcycle Diaries. He won two Oscar awards for scoring the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain and the 2006 film Babel.
Santaolalla continues to create the sonic fabric of films and shows, often collaborating with his musical partner Aníbal Kerpel and filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu.
“There’s definitely that influence that makes me who I am and… connects with my Latino heritage,” he told NPR in 2021. “It is Latin music because it’s made by a Latino. But it’s universal music. You can say exactly the same thing about Iñárritu’s films.”
When filmmaker Iñárritu made his Oscar-winning film Birdman in 2014, he asked Mexican jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez to score it.
“It was pretty much improvised,” says Sanchez. “It was the kind of score that had never been done before, you know just a full drum set score.”
Sanchez grew up in Mexico City, the grandson of Ignacio López Tarso, a famous actor from Mexico’s Golden Age of cinema. He says working on films has opened up creativity in his musical projects, and he credits Iñárritu with developing a new style of film composition.
“What Iñárritu wanted me to do was just to be myself, you know, just to improvise, to react, to use my instincts and just imprint something in real-time.”
Of course, no story about Latino film composers would be complete without Nuyorican Lin-Manuel Miranda. Like his Broadway musicals, his movies, including In The Heights, incorporate Hip Hop, Latin and musical theater styles.
Miranda’s music will be featured in the new Little Mermaid Disney remake, hot off the heels of writing for last year’s Oscar-winning animated film Encanto.
For Disney’s Encanto, he traveled to Colombia to find inspiration in the diverse musical styles of the country.
Germaine Franco’s work on Encanto led her to become the first Latina nominated for Best Original Score at the Oscars. She says for one scene, she wrote an Afro-Colombian chant and gathered an ensemble of women to perform it for the film.
“I wanted to honor the Afro-Colombian community,” she says. “People forget how amazing it is that they managed to escape from the colonies and have their own communities. The women there sing and play and chant to a special marimba you can only get there. I had one built and I had it shipped here.”
For Coco, Pixar’s animated love letter to Mexico, Franco arranged and orchestrated the score. She brought in familiar elements from her childhood along the El Paso and Juárez border and added the sounds of folkloric dancing. Franco also produced all the recording sessions, with 50 master musicians from Mexico.
“Knowing that there’s this connection between my ancestor’s Mexican music that goes back, you know, hundreds of years,” she says. “There we were, and I was saying to them, ‘put the sound that you want, what it should be, not what I want. It should be your sound.'”
Producer Camilo Lara, from the group Mexican Institute of Sound, also worked on Coco. “I even have a cameo in the movie. I’m the deejay at the party,” he says from his home recording studio in Mexico City. “It was fun to be portrayed as a skeleton.”
Lara sampled hip hop and electronic music to create loops and beats for films like Y Tu Mamá También and Thor. And he produced a song by Santa Fe Klan for the new film Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
Lara says he was inspired by the midcentury lounge-meets-Latin music of Mexican composer Juan Garcia Esquivel. And he’s grateful to all those before him. “I’m thanking Maria Grever, Lalo Schifrin and of course, Gustavo Santaolalla and a bunch of amazing people that did the hard work in Hollywood to let other Latino composers to have a chance,” he says. “All of them are my idols.”