- Musical Interludes in 1960s Mexican Melodrama:Crafting a Sonic Space of Exclusion
This article examines how the musical interlude operates in Rumbo a Brasilia (No importa mi color) (1961) and Pecado de juventud (1962), two understudied Mexican melodramas concerned with racial and class discord. While Mexican domestic melodramas filmed in the sixties pared down the incorporation of musical numbers, these song and dance breaks remained a fundamental element of the melodrama genre. I argue that these films' musical numbers illuminate the changing narrative role of the obligatory sonic interlude. In both Rumbo and Pecado, spectatorship does not function to refold the alienated protagonist back into the collective fold of the listening group, but exacerbates their symbolic isolation. Outsiders looking in, these characters remain separate from the exuberant space of song and dance, able to listen but excluded from participation.
Contemporary usage of the term "melodrama" invokes sensationalist theatrics, moral polarization, and emotional excess. Peter Brook's influential study, The Melodramatic Imagination, argued that this aesthetic of exaggeration functioned to transform the ordinary into something so entertaining that the audience would pay attention to the stakes of everyday life (10). In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theater, melodrama referred to the pairing of theatrical drama with musical accompaniment–melos, the Greek word for music. This structural coupling of narrative with music became central to early Hollywood and Latin American cinemas. Musical numbers interrupted the unfolding narrative in order to reinforce character development and emotional texture, or simply to entertain through tone and rhythm. While the centrality of music has largely died off in twenty-first century iterations of Latin American melodrama, in the twentieth century, diegetic music played a fundamental role in what Darlene Sadlier describes as the region's "populist mode par excellence" (15). [End Page 507]
In Golden Age Mexican cinema, musical performances punctuated and reinforced narrative development; they revealed characters' intimate feelings and unexpressed emotions. Or alternatively, the musical interlude was non-narrative in function; it paused the plot to provide filmgoers the pleasure of experiencing familiar tunes by renowned performers, and strengthened the feeling of shared cultural ground, not only on-screen but off. It was a crucial diegetic space in which the audience's identification with national rhythms was consolidated.
Ana López explains that while music is present across all genres of Mexican Golden Age cinema, it is always "deployed within melodramatic scenarios" (121). The melodrama rose to prominence in Mexico in the wake of the massive popularity of Allá en el Rancho Grande (1936). This film gave birth to the comedia ranchera, a genre that married identifiable icons of mexicanidad with romantic intrigue and exuberantly melodious performances of genres like the bolero, mariachi trio, and ranchera. Importantly, the musical interlude in the comedia ranchera codified these musical genres as indicators of national community. Interrupting the narrative diegesis, the breakout into song operated to "produce a sense of the cohesiveness of a community linked explicitly to national ethos," a way for the viewer to feel like they belonged within the screened musical exuberance of mexicanidad (López 126). As Desirée J. García notes in her analysis of Allá en el Rancho Grande, the songs performed on screen in folk musicals are not necessarily performed for the audience, but with them. The singer acts as the audience's emotional conduit; the performance is collective, and fosters a sense of homogeneity and togetherness (77).
Musicality was not just confined to the cinematic setting of the rural hacienda in Golden Age Mexican cinema, but also flourished in films of the cabaretera or rumbera genre. Set in urban cabarets and starring a working-class prostitute or dancer, cabaretera films include artfully choreographed dance sequences that highlight the rumbera's costumes and rhythmic prowess. According to scholarship, the musical dance interlude functions in two ways. First, following Eduardo de la Vega Alfaro, as a way to compensate for holes in the plot (168). And second, as a vehicle for erotic expression at a time when most films were ideologically conservative. In contrast with these films' conservative messaging, exemplified through the heroine's inevitably tragic demise, Laura G. Gutiérrez argues that their musical numbers "fracture the...