Tribeca Film Festival 2012: ‘Babygirl’ musical director Ed Morales on his song choices
Sounds of the Caribbean abound on Macdara Vallely’s new urban drama, Babygirl, set in the Bronx.
One of our top picks for films playing at the fest this year, Babygirl centers on a 15-year-old Nuyorican named Lena (Yainis Ynoa), who watches in agony as her single mother (Rosa Arredono) dates a series of losers until she falls head over heels for Victor (Flaco Navaja), seemingly her worst suitor yet. When Victor tries to make a move on Lena, she plots a scheme to expose him.
Ed knows a thing or two about Latin music, so expect a lot of interesting Caribbean-inspired song choices, including Aventura (this is set in the BX, after all) and Rita Indiana.
Watch Babygirl online tonight at 9 p.m. EST for free as part of the film fest’s online program.
Was this your first gig as musical director?
This is the first time I was a musical director for a feature film. I coordinated the music for a documentary I co-directed in 2009 called Whose Barrio, but I used a much wider range of music here. I worked with the director, Macdara Vallely in getting the right music in general and for specific scenes, and it was a great experience.
What drew you to Babygirl?
Macdara was a friend of some personal friends of mine. One of them suggested we get together and we talked and showed him the documentary I had worked on. He liked the way I used music in that film to create a mood, so he asked me to work with him on Babygirl.
Do you have a favorite scene?
I think the scene where Lena goes to dinner with Victor is my favorite because Flaco Navaja does a great job fusing the sleazy and sincere aspects of his character, while Yainis [Inoa] as Lena captures that moment of adolescence when a child turns the corner towards becoming an adult. The fascinating thing about Lena is how she seems to have no previous experience in making “adult” decisions, but acts on them with a sudden confidence. It shows how we at first “play at” or “perform” adulthood and suddenly we’ve become that.
You seem to use some of the artists more than once, like Monxo Lopez, Rebio Diaz, and Jose Condé, any particular reason why?
Monxo and Rebio are local New York musicians who created original music for the film, specifically for the mood of certain scenes. José is also a New York-based musician and his already-recorded songs fit well with the atmosphere we were trying to create. In general we had a philosophy about the soundtrack music — we were trying to get local artists that would fit the spirit of the film, which is independent, grassroots, street-level, and hopefully a real glimpse of New York that the big studios don’t quite get.
Was it just obligatory to include an Aventura song, in this case “Dile Al Amor”?
Although Aventura is a major commercial success, they are emblematic of a certain urban aesthetic with a very loyal fan base that reflected a big part of the audience we wanted to attract with this film. I went to one of their sold-out concerts at Madison Square Garden a year or so ago and the crowd seemed to be the kind of audience that would like this film. I think because they update a traditional genre like bachata, Aventura are a rare example of a massive pop group that strikes a chord of authenticity with Latino youth.
You included Rita Indiana, too — what do you find cool about her image and music?
First of all, Macdara is a huge fan of Rita’s, so he was so excited when I got her on board. Rita is an extraordinary talent, not just as a musician, she started as a novelist. Again, by using traditional genres like merengue and perico ripiao and mixing them with electro and house, she makes music that attracts a wide popular base while still being avant-garde. The crowds at Central Park Summerstage convinced me she was not just for arty types, and the fact that she is a Dominican living in Puerto Rico makes her a cutting edge, transnational phenomenon.
Did you find yourself balancing old school vs new music? Why was that important?
I think it’s important because it kind of establishes what is essential about Latino identity. Mainstream America has separate youth and old school music and culture, but Latino youth, even though they strongly desire young and hip music, feel a need to connect with their ancestral traditions, what makes them feel at home with their family. If you go to a Calle 13 show, for instance, you’ll see older parents with their kids and it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary, and you’ll always see young people at an old school salsa show. There’s a scene where I suggested Flaco sing “La Vida es un Sueño” in the park, and I thought, here’s a young New York dude, into old school salsa, singing an even older-school song by Arsenio Rodriguez, whose title hints at one of the most venerated plays in the Spanish language, “La Vida es Sueño” by Calderón de la Barca, written in Spain in the 17th century. So he’s keeping that spirit alive in a New York City park.
Did you travel to many different countries, musically speaking, on this film?
Sure, we have music from Nuyoricans, Puerto Ricans living in New York, Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico, Dominicans living in Puerto Rico, Dominicans living in New York, Cubans living in New York. There was music from other nationalities and nations that we considered that didn’t make the cut. If you want to make a soundtrack that reflects Latino life in New York, you have to draw from all the different Latino cultures in New York. But since the characters were Puerto Rican, we kept to Caribbean music.
Do you need to be a music scholar to appreciate the music in this film?
I hope not. Maybe somebody will write a paper on it and publish it in an academic journal and make us feel accomplished. I just hope the music will act as a cue that helps people remember scenes in a movie that they enjoyed, as part of the whole experience, how when Lena and Victor are on their date, their emotions heightened, and there was a bolero playing.
What would you say is your quirkiest/riskiest/most unusual song choice and why?
I think Rita’s stuff is the edgiest because she challenges people’s ideas about gender aggressively. I don’t think that it was out of place because part of Lena’s growing up is to understand how to channel her aggression, and at the core of Rita I think is a sweet adolescent curiosity.
Were you inspired by the work of anyone in particular in the industry, in terms of music supervisors?
By complete coincidence one of the producers of this film, Paul Miller, worked on John Sayles’s Lone Star, which had a soundtrack that I really admired. It had southern blues and old rancheras and cheesy cumbias like Fito Olivares’s “Juana La Cubana.” I liked the soundtrack to Y Tu Mamá También a lot, and what semi-urban films of the ’90s did for hip-hop, like Nothing to Lose. But all the great directors, from Hitchcock to Godard to Spike Lee and Soderbergh have always inspired me with placing great importance on sound and music.
If you had to tell people one good reason to see this movie, what would it be?
For once, a movie that realistically portrays working-class Latinos who are proud, funny, flawed, and yet somehow heroic and no one gets killed in a hail of gunfire.
What’s an interesting backstory or fact about one of the artists featured
Viento de Agua, whose song “Ciudadano del Mundo” appears in the birthday sequence in the park, is a Puerto Rican plena group led by Tito Matos, who spent many years living in New York before he moved back to the island. That song is a more ambitious attempt by his group to use a bigger orchestra, but Matos and VDA are some of Puerto Rico’s best known street pleneros, much like the Yerba Buena group that Flaco Navaja was in. Tito is part of a scene of Puerto Rican musicians and artists whose paths have crossed with Rita Indiana and some of the other musicians used in the film. That song, about being “ni de aquí ni de allá” is emblematic of the transnational urban feel of the soundtrack.
What was the biggest lesson you learned from working on this?
There was a point where I was frustrated because there were some difficulties getting the right music for various bureaucratic reasons and I said to Macdara “it doesn’t matter all that much because it’s just a snippet of music and this is such a great script and the acting performances are excellent,” and he said “bullshit,” and refused to diminish the importance of striving for the right music, and of course he was totally right. I’d always thought of myself as someone who strived for perfection, but I came to reflect on how that’s something you always need to keep working on.
How long did it take you?
I had already begun to think of music when Macdara showed me the script in late 2009, and we didn’t finalize the soundtrack until late last year.
Any plans to do music supervision for future movies?
I would very much like to. I think I do my best work with a great script and good people to work with.
If your house was burning down (God forbid), which 3 records would you take with you?
Siembra by Willie Colón and Rubén Blades, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book.
Ed Morales is the author of two books (Living in Spanglish and The Latin Beat) and a journalist whose work has appeared in the Village Voice, The New York Times, and the Nation. He is currently a lecturer at Columbia University¹s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race.