TV Eye

The Band Plays On

Luisa Fregoso of Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles
Luisa Fregoso of Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles

I know I just had the opportunity to witness the most talked-about and up-and-coming bands from all over the world at South by Southwest, but truth be told, I love me some mariachi. Now I'm the first to admit that when mariachi is bad, it's really bad. As in makes-your-teeth-itch bad. Sour-milk bad. But when mariachi is good, it's sublime. Good mariachi strikes at a core level of understanding that reaches beyond language and –well, I was going to say culture, but honestly, I'm not sure the feeling, that unique twist of the heart, always translates. So if you're someone who doesn't snicker at the tight, flashy outfits and the flying-saucer-sized sombreros, then you will appreciate Compañeras, a new film in PBS' Independent Lens series about the first all-female mariachi band in the U.S., Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles.

Filmmakers Elizabeth Massie (Out of the Shadow) and Matthew Buzzell (whose superb Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew played at SXSW a few years back as well as on Independent Lens) have come together to chart the creation of Mariachi Reyna while offering remarks on what makes mariachi so compelling. While the film doesn't quite hit the mark with the latter, it makes up for this shortcoming by handsomely showcasing some enormously talented singers and musicians.

The opening sequence of Compañeras will take your breath away. A tight shot of a vocalist, bathed in blue light and powerfully singing a traditional mariachi tune, makes your heart soar and makes you expect more. But after a cursory history lesson on mariachi, the film settles into profiling several members of the 12-woman ensemble, focusing on some in-group bickering we're led to believe is inevitable whenever you get a bunch of women together. We're told the Mariachi Reyna (formed in 1994) do not perform as often or get paid as much as their male counterparts and that it's their own fault because they don't take the gigs as seriously as getting married and having children. Maybe they would take it more seriously if they were making real money, like their male counterparts. But dissecting that double standard doesn't seem to be the focus of this otherwise enjoyable film. Instead, Compañeras seems fixated on the backstage antagonisms coming to the unspoken conclusion that girls will be girls. If you can get past this disappointing commentary, Compañeras is quite enjoyable. In fact, it's almost worth fast-forwarding through the backstage drama just to hear the music. But if you did that, you'd miss two of the more intriguing profiles. The first features Cindy. She is the only non-Latina in the group, a classically trained violinist who came to the group by accident, only to fall in love with mariachi and eventually become leader of Mariachi Reyna. The second story is about Angelica, a 19-year-old vocalist and guitarist who gets her father to move her to Los Angeles so she can fulfill her dream of auditioning for Mariachi Reyna. Watching Angelica audition is one of the most touching aspects of the film. Her anxiety clouding over her obvious skill is something any parent, mentor, or adult guardian will recognize with heartbreaking clarity.

While Compañeras has several screenings, unless you're a night owl, you're going to have to record this Independent Lens feature. Compañeras airs Wednesday, April 2, at 12mid on KLRU2. Subsequent airdates occur in May on KLRU. Check local listings for dates and times.


Happy Returns

The Tudors returns to Showtime for its second season Sunday, March 30, at 8pm. Can't wait? Watch the first episode of the new season at www.sho.com.

For those wondering when new episodes of your favorite series will air now that the writers' strike is over, make note of these dates:

April 3: My Name Is Earl (NBC) and CSI (CBS). April 7: Samantha Who? (ABC). April 10: The Office, 30 Rock, and Scrubs (NBC). April 13: Desperate Housewives (ABC).

If you forgot what transpired before your fave shows went into reruns or you want to relive some good TV times from the past, check out Hulu.com. The streaming-video site finally went live on March 17 and is the current go-to site to catch new and vintage TV shows from the comfort of your computer. And it's free, for now.

As always, stay tuned.


E-mail Belinda Acosta at tveye@austinchronicle.com.

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