Music is integral to the world of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, but it is also incidental, experienced only as part of the action. The remarkable 2018 film contains no diegetic use of music; no song is ever superimposed over the deliberately paced action that takes place in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighborhood at the dawn of the 1970s. Of the 41 songs identified in IMDB’s soundtrack credits, most viewers won’t notice more than a handful. A wistful Leo Dan lament plays tinnily on the radio as Cleo, the film’s housekeeper protagonist, tidies up; a Berlioz symphony shakes the paterfamilias’ Ford Galaxie as he stubs out his cigarette in its overflowing ashtray; a garage band rehearses a shambling cover of “House of the Rising Sun” outside a corrugated shack in the muddy slum of Nezahualcóyotl. It’s all part of Cuarón’s naturalistic touch.
In fact, there is no difference between those moments and any of the other sounds so meticulously captured in the film’s sound design: the knife-sharpener’s whistle as he trundles his whetstone down the street, the cries of women in a crowded maternity ward, the three unbroken minutes of footsteps and mop sploshing that provide the film’s meditative opening scene. All these sounds are inextricable from the delicate shading of Cuarón’s black-and-white tone poem, as much a part of the setting as the period costumes, the middle-class furniture, the indigenous characters’ Mixteca dialogue.
But this album—Music Inspired by the Film Roma—is not that soundtrack. The actual original motion picture soundtrack, featuring not just Leo Dan and Berlioz but also mambo giant Pérez Prado and the coastal sound of Acapulco Tropical, is a fine complement to the film—an interactive volume of CliffsNotes, perhaps, a chance to duck inside Roma’s hidden corners. This album is an altogether different proposition. Overseen by Cuarón and music supervisor Lynn Fainchtein, it’s billed as Cuarón’s favorite artists making music inspired by his film. It would be an unusual grouping by virtually any standard, gathering together proto-punk royal Patti Smith, post-millennial icon Billie Eilish, British folk singer Laura Marling, and turntablist DJ Shadow, among others. To apply such an eclectic roster to Roma’s meticulous work of reconstruction is even more confounding.
Following Cuarón’s field-recorded introduction, “Tepeji 21 (The Sounds of Roma),” the album begins with a double dose of déjà vu. First Patti Smith reprises her 1996 song “Wing”; then Beck and his father, the Canadian arranger and composer David Campbell, tackle “Tarantula,” a 1982 song by the 4AD band Colourbox. Both are lovely renditions—the pedal steel of “Wing” is liquid and narcotic; Beck’s “Tarantula” blows wide the proportions of This Mortal Coil’s 1986 cover of the song—and, if you squint, you can kind of see how “Wing,” at least, might reflect back on Cleo. But Beck’s song would seem to have only the most tenuous connection to Roma, and its bilious lyrics (“My world’s under a sentence of death, I was born underground/But when the pressure gets too much for me, I bite”) feel out of step with the story’s quietude, and even its brief moments of violence.
The best songs here connect more firmly back to the narrative. Billie Eilish’s “When I Was Older” takes its premise from Pépe, the film’s youngest character, who has a habit of fantasizing about his past lives. It’s a gorgeous song, with diaphanous synths rippling atop snub-nosed synth bass and tough trap snares, and even though the sound couldn’t be further from Mexico City of the 1970s, it makes for a fitting contemporary extrapolation. At the other end of the spectrum, the Mexico City group Sonido Gallo Negro’s “Cumbia del Borras” pays tribute to the movie’s canine character with a giddy psychedelic cumbia whose slipperiness may or may not have something to do with the dog’s penchant for befouling the family’s carport.
A number of artists avail themselves of sounds from the film—the knife-sharpener’s whistle recurs again and again—while others deliver appropriately cinematic mood pieces. El-P and Wilder Zoby’s instrumental “Marooned” is a nice surprise; UNKLE’s mopey “On My Knees,” not so much. A few selections are simply great songs, no matter the context: The Colombian-Canadian singer Jessie Reyez’ largely acoustic, cumbia-flavored “Con el Viento” has a certain timelessness that lends itself to a project like this; it’s also a fine introduction to the rising singer’s expressive voice. There’s another introduction here, in the form of “PSYCHO,” by Bu Cuarón—the director’s 16-year-old daughter. She also has a strong voice, but, like so much contemporary pop, it’s been overproduced—processed and equalized to a fault—and the song’s big-budget pop runs against the grain of the rest of the album.
Even at its best, much of Music Inspired by the Film Roma feels unnecessary. Cuarón’s movie is such a singular, self-contained universe—right down to the furniture that he borrowed from his extended family, in order to recreate his boyhood home in meticulous detail—that a project like this runs counter to the spirit of the whole enterprise. When Cuarón repainted the surface of a Mexico City street to ensure that even the marks on the asphalt were historically accurate, what are we to make of unmistakably futuristic synths and trap drums? The album doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as smash it to pieces with a high-tech battering ram. The beauty of Roma comes down to its tone and its upending of narrative expectation. We expect big, tragic, pivotal things to happen, and for the most part, they don’t. It’s a quiet film about big ideas; a film about interior worlds that refuses to let viewers get too far inside its characters’ heads. But Music Inspired by the Film Roma is none of those things. It’s a reverse mood board, or at best, a kind of bizarre, sanctioned fanfic.
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