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Review by Brad Green:
A Beautiful Mind, Pollock, Iris, The Hours, The Pianist, Frida – what a purple patch of biopics! We expect an Ali or three each year, but this cornucopia of tributes to artists and intellectuals has come as a pleasant surprise; particularly as such lofty portrayals have no less than demanded a series of top shelf soundtracks. 

In reviewing The Pianist recently, I noted that Chopin’s music was described by the great German composer Robert Schumann as “guns smothered in flowers”. It might seem strange to suggest a correlation between the Poet of the Piano and Frida Kahlo’s “agonised poetry on canvas” (as her husband Diego Rivera defined her work), but Kahlo’s art was also described, by critic and poet Andre Breton, as “a ribbon around a bomb”. The synonymy in Schumann and Breton’s metaphors is striking, and the key to the unlikely comparison lies in the details. Chopin “smothered” his explosive passion in grace notes; Kahlo splashed hers directly onto canvass and gifted it to our eyes wrapped in the barest “ribbon” of superfluous decoration. 

Frida Kahlo was the viscerally intimate, inward-looking half of Mexico’s most celebrated artistic couple. She: mustachioed and mono-browed; physically fragile and emotionally unstable. He: obese, extroverted and prolific. Both brilliant. Kahlo and Diego Rivera were quite a pair. Presenting as a rather more handsome, but also creatively courageous couple are director Julie Taymor and soundtrack composer Elliot Goldenthal. They are a husband and wife team who seem to complement each other perfectly in their professional collaborations. Taymor has recalled that they met when someone tipped off Goldenthal to go and see one of her plays on the grounds that “he’d like my work because it’s as grotesque as his”!

When Taymor fashioned Titus as an artistic grand guignol, Goldenthal augmented the confronting nature of the imagery with big band swing backs Shakespeare. Here, he restrains his cutting-edge urges and creates a sound-canvas of original and traditional Mexican songs that are fringed with just a dash of modernism. The soundtrack opens with the haunting, shimmering voice of Lila Downs; the kind of voice that instantaneously cleanses trivia from the mind, and brings the poignancy of life into sharp focus. In all, she features on five tracks, distilling the torment and rapture of Kahlo’s 47 torrid years into a profound expression of emotion. Equally moving, is the quavering voice of nonagenarian and one-time lover of Kahlo’s, Chavela Vargas. 

Throughout, the vocals are vestured in the fabric of Mexican music, echoing Kahlo’s series of self-portraits in local costume. There are a plethora of Spanish and steel guitars taking on that particular characteristic that emerges when the strummer is bedecked in a sombrero. The fingers comb over the frets and make the same direct communication as the expression that travels from hand to brush to canvas. 

There are flamenco, serenade and mariachi elements in the arrangements of guitars, accordion, piano and strings; and when Goldenthal does briefly loose his modernism, in the stunning La Cavalera, the more intricate harmonic and rhythmic structure amplifies the raw sentiment of the songs around it. 

Like her palette, Kahlo’s life raged across the spectrum; her magical and macabre imagery baring an anguished soul. Such a spirit only, perhaps, finds peace at the last; and such it is with this soundtrack. The final song, Burn It Blue, foreshadowed in various passages throughout the soundtrack, provides both a gentle and devastating conclusion. It is a duet performed with extraordinary sensitivity by Downs and Caetano Veloso; and together they educe from its simple melody, a sad, cathartic and ultimately transcendent beauty.

Published April 3, 2003

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TITLE: Frida
ID: 28947 41502
SCORE: Elliot Goldenthal
FEATURED PERFORMERS: Lila Downs; Les Cojolites; Chavela Vargas; El Poder Del Norte; Trio Huasteco Caimanes de Tamuin; Selam Hayek; Los Vega; Caetano Veloso

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