Biopic's music true to painter's roots in Mexican tradition

“Frida,” Julie Taymor’s biopic of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, demanded two kinds of music, according to composer Elliot Goldenthal: the songs of Kahlo’s time and experience and an underscore that met the film’s emotional needs while remaining true to the sounds of Mexico.

“It took a great deal of research to unearth the music that Frida listened to in her time,” he says. “In Hayden Herrera’s biography, there are a lot of references to the music that Frida adored. All of that is authentic, and performed in the way that it would have been heard in the 1920s and ’30s.”

Intimate approach

For the dramatic score, however, Goldenthal sought “an extremely intimate approach” centered on a small ensemble of acoustic instruments: the vihuela (small Mexican guitar), standard classical guitar, the guitarron (Mexican bass guitar), accordion, Mexican harp, marimba and the ghostly sounding glass armonica.

“All of these stringed instruments are played in a percussive way, a rhythmic way, but they also have this beautiful, lyrical voice,” the composer explains. “Melody was extremely important, but I tried to stay true to myself. I just wanted the music to work in the movie.”

Goldenthal (who is Taymor’s partner in life as well as movies) worked on the score for a year, including pre-recording a number of songs (his own and the traditional material), recording in both Mexico City and New York. A highlight, he says, was working with 90-year-old Latin music legend Chavela Vargas, who had once been Kahlo’s lover.

“Diego (Rivera) and Frida sought her out as a progenitor of a type of singing which was very earthy, very direct, very emotional and very — in the case of Frida Kahlo — homoerotic. There she was, drinking mezcal, and she would not sing to a playback. She did 12 takes of ‘La Llorona,’ and each one was just as great.”

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