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Alfonso Cuarón Tells Why His Scoreless ‘Roma’ Prompted an ‘Inspired’ Companion Album

Beck, Billie Eilish, T Bone Burnett and his daughter Bu are featured.

Back around the ‘90s, “music inspired by the film” albums got a bad name, as buyers tired of collections full of random recordings that clearly were inspired by nothing but the desire to use movie branding to launch a hit song. But Alfonso Cuarón, the director of “Roma,” is determined to find some artistic validity in the idea of a companion album that was created independently from a film’s soundtrack… and to actually have there be some truth in advertising in that “inspired by” tag.

Not one of the 15 songs on the newly released album “Music Inspired by the Film ‘Roma’” appears in or was intended for the Oscar-nominated movie. The closest any of the choices come is a fresh recording by English singer Laura Marling of Mary Hopkins’ 1968 hit “Those Were the Days,” a version of which does pop up in “Roma” — albeit not Hopkins’ version, but an easy-listening cover by Ray Conniff. But if there is none of this music in the movie, there is a lot of the movie in the music, both thematically and aurally.

In a conversation with Variety, Cuarón explained the thinking behind the collection, which brings together a trans-generational and international cast of musicians that includes Billie Eilish, Beck, T Bone Burnett, Patti Smith, R&B’s Jessie Reyez, EDM’s UNKLE and DJ Shadow, France’s Ibeyi, hip-hop’s El-P, Mexico’s Quinque Rangel and Sonido Gallo Negro — and even the debut track from the filmmaker’s daughter, Bu Cuarón, 16, who also participated in the interview.

During the film’s production, Cuarón says, “Lynn Fainchtein, my music supervisor, was also part of my conversations about gathering all the sounds of Mexico City — you know, the knife sharpener and the sweet potatoes cart and the rubbish collector and so on. At some point, we thought it would be cool to come up with some cool musicians and have each musician doing one of these sounds in a piece of music. Eventually, as we were finishing the film, it became another conversation. We invited different artists to watch the film, and see if they were inspired. The very first one was T Bone; I sent him the sounds, and he presented this amazing piece of music. From then on, we thought, this can be an excuse to collaborate with artists that we admire.” Another familiar name in the world of music supervison, Randall Poster, was brought in to help with the post-production project. They didn’t slap any of the artists’ wrists if they didn’t strictly adhere to the original brief. “We would deliver a tape to them, and some would use the sounds, some would not use the sounds,” but in each case, he says, there was some point of connection.

In a separate interview, T Bone Burnett confirmed the process. “All the street vendors in Mexico have a call or a sound, and Alfonso had recorded them and sent me all these different sounds and said, ‘Do something with them.’ So I just put them to a beat and it turned into this really interesting piece of music, when you put the sounds of the street together. I just called it ‘Roma’ at the time because that’s what I was working on. I didn’t mean it as a title song! But I’m happy it is. It ends the record, so I think it’s appropriate.” (Burnett is a fan through and through, saying “Roma” has “got to” win best picture. “It’s so much better than everything.”)

The most clear and obvious use of sounds lifted from the movie — and perhaps the album’s one truly light-hearted moment — is Sonido Gallo Negro’s “Cumbia del Borras,” which samples the title critter, bringing back either happy or traumatic memories of the film’s voluminous garage poop.

Says Bu, “Their Cumbia about the dog is probably my favorite track on the album because it’s just so fun to listen to, and you could be with your family at dinner and start dancing to ‘Cumbia del Borres.’ And the album goes from that to sad and mellow with (Eilish’s) ‘When I Was Older.’ I feel like the album really deals with reality. For example, Jessie Reyez, one of her verses, if you don’t know it in Spanish, (translates to) ‘You don’t know how to love but it’s not your fault. It’s the fault of your parents.’ It’s literally portraying the reality of certain situations that connect to their personal life but also connect to the movie.”

Adds her dad, “There’s an aspect of the overall album that you might call mellow, but I would call melancholic and a little bit nostalgic. That’s one reason we placed ‘Those Were the Days’ with Laura (Marling) late into the album, just to have that sense of flow leading into that. There’s a certain acceptance of a mystery of life in most of the songs, and of the fact that life is challenging, but at the same time, it’s also joyful. You could put together this diverse group of people and it could feel too eclectic, but the mood is very consistent, and I’m very proud of that.”

A few reviews have been confused with why a couple of artists chose to record remakes for their “inspired” contributions. Smith redid her own “Wing,” and Beck did a cover of the Colourbox oldie “Tarantula” (which he recently performed on James Corden’s show with Gustavo Dudamel and an orchestra culled from the L.A. Philharmonic’s ranks). Cuarón said his was not to question why these artists made those choices in connection with his film. “It’s very clear that when they watched the film, they referred back to those songs and, after all these years, decided that it was the time. So if ‘Roma’ can serve as an excuse for that, it makes me very happy.”

There’s an irony in “Music Inspired by the Film ‘Roma’” using songs to ask you to think back on the film. The movie itself includes snippets of about 40 songs in some form, but zero of them are pushed to the forefront. These choices — the in-your-face and very much out-of-your-face — both reflect a healthy respect for music and how it can be received in different media.

Cuarón can cite a specific film that inspired him, when it came to keeping songs on the low-down, as source music only, and it was a Martin Scorsese picture.

‘Probably the first time I saw music used this way was when I was seeing ‘After Hours,’” the director recalls. “There’s a scene in which (Griffin Dunne) is talking to someone and you can hear the Pretenders playing so far away, and you can tell that it’s something playing on a small radio through a window, and I loved how they used it with that quality. You’re used to, whenever in cinema you have a famous song, particularly, they will play it full volume, full blast, in your face. And here just was a song that was so far away, and I said, ‘Wow, this is so beautiful.’ it took me to the place, you know?”

Says Bu, “I think that music does manipulate feelings in the movie, and that’s why ‘Roma’ lacks (score) music, because it doesn’t want to manipulate a feeling, because it wants to deal with reality. So this album was almost created to replace the music and the soundtrack of the movie, and in its own way deal even more with reality.”

Cuarón worked not only with Fainchtein and Poster but had an uncredited assist from Bu that made for a father/daughter bonding experience.

“It was almost like a game between me and my dad about which artist we would (want). For example, I would be like, ‘Oh, let’s put Jessie Reyez. She’s so cool; her production is amazing and it’s crazy.’ And then my dad would actually act on it, and then Lynn would be able to actually get her, and she’s on the album. … I was in class, and instead of listening,” she admits, “just texting my dad like, ‘Oh my god. Listen to this; this is so good.’ And even if it was not going to happen, it was fun to have an excuse to talk about and just enjoy music together.”

For her own song, “Psycho,” Bu used dialogue snippets in which the mother character is briefly lashing out at the Cleo character in the film. She intended to make her song not literally about that movie dynamic but a broader set of relationships in which anger is followed by an apology. She says, ”It’s someone that hits you and then all the sudden they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’ And you’re thinking, you just hugged me but do you really mean it? I guess I connected it to situations I had in real life.”

The decision to include a song of his daughter’s was a late one for Cuarón and his music supervisor/co-producers. “Lynn had listened to Bu’s songs because there was a TV show that wanted to use one of them, and it was Randall who suggested, ‘I believe that Bu should be part of the mix,’ and that’s when I invited Bu. She was not expecting it.”

“It was like the last thing that would have ever come to mind, honestly,” Bu says, “because Jessie and T Bone and Billie and all these amazing artists went on, and I was already producing stuff but not yet thinking about releasing anything. And then my dad and my producer were in the room and they’re like, ‘We have to tell you something,’ and it was really intense. I cried.”

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