Review first published by Sight & Sound, July 2014
Synopsis: Greenville, Kansas. Sad, single, recently unemployed 29-year-old Edward still lives with his conservative Christian parents, and with a pill addiction from childhood. He has largely given up on both his guitar and his childhood dream of running away with a band. His only refuge from this stifling domestic arrangement is the town’s Mexican restaurant El Mariachi. Its owner Alberto, who followed his dreams north to the US, regales Edward with stories of the mariachi life in his childhood home Guadalajara, teaches Edward some mariachi songs, and advises the young man to follow his own dream with confidence.
After Alberto has a stroke, Edward (now turned 30) decides to head down to Guadalajara and become ‘a simple mariachi of the people’. As he gradually finds his feet and expands his musical repertoire, Edward is befriended and helped by local waitress Lilia, and her mariachi friend Sophia. Edward’s growing love for Lilia is thwarted both by her own dream of returning to interrupted studies in Santa Cruz, California, and by her homosexuality. Edward successfully auditions for the big band Mariachi Alas, only to realise that they are less interested in harnessing his musical talent than in exploiting his novelty status for commercial reasons – so after one triumphant performance as their ‘Mariachi Gringo’ front man, he quits.
Upon news of Alberto’s death, Edward returns home to pour a libation at the older man’s grave. In Guadalajara again, Edward learns that Lilia has gone back to California. Edward performs with Sophia’s mariachi band in a small village.
Review: The path from Mexico to the United States is a well travelled one, but relatively few dream of migrating in the opposite direction. It is the central paradox of Tom Gustafson’s fish-out-of-water musical drama Mariachi Gringo, enshrined in its very title, and in its bilingual opening credits (with the Spanish coming first) – and also the spur for all manner of narrative surprises as protagonist Edward (Shawn Ashmore) insistently swims against the current in pursuit of an unexpected new identity. Kansas born and bred, and still living (in his late twenties) with his conservative parents when the film opens, Edward resists pressure to settle down with a white girl from his local church, instead hanging out with middle-aged Alberto, immigrant proprietor of the town’s only Mexican restaurant, El Mariachi – and although Alberto has long since established new roots in America, he inspires Edward to make the inverse journey and become a mariachi in his own former hometown of Guadalajara. The Wizard of Oz is expressly, if briefly, mentioned here – but once Edward has found his true home and vocation abroad, he will, unlike the most famous Kansas resident to come of age in a colourful dreamland, never want to go back.
If Gustafson’s debut feature Were the World Mine (2008) was an outspokenly gay musical, gay themes maintain a more oblique presence here. Edward is, by implication, straight, but the way in which he summons the courage to break free of his family’s fixed values and to find greater acceptance in a new community is a compelling allegory of coming out, decoded by a parallel subplot in which Edward’s friend and impossible love interest Lilia (Martha Higareda) must weigh her mother’s expectations against not just her desire to live in another country, but also her lesbianism. The utter incompatibility of Edward’s and Lilia’s respective aspirations prevents Mariachi Gringo from becoming either a clichéd opposites-attract romance or indeed a glib fantasy about following your dreams – rather, it traces the process of becoming true to oneself, with not just the exhilaration that this entails, but also the associated sadness and sacrifice. The scenes of Edward changing shirts that form a recurrent motif in the film are also signifiers of broader transformation, as this gringo in metamorphosis sloughs off one skin after another to find out which costume best fits who he really is underneath.
“Mariachi brings all kinds of people together”, Alberto tells ‘Eduardo’. “Poor, rich, young, old – even you and me.” Accordingly, Gustafson uses his mariachi tracks to unify storylines (choreographed in well-edited montages) that transcend traditional boundaries of nationality, sexuality and class. The whole idea of an all-American white boy trying to pass as a traditional Mexican singer might seem preposterous, even a little insulting, but Mariachi Gringo is as sincere, committed and uncompromising as Edward himself. It also helps that Ashmore embodies this unlikely seeming folk musician with real conviction, and can more than convincingly hold a tune.