- Cinesonidos: Film Music and National Identity During Mexico’s Época de Oro by Jacqueline Avila
Cinesonidos: Film Music and National Identity During Mexico’s Época de Oro
New York: Oxford University Press, 2019: 288 pp.
Since the publication of the now-classic special issue of Yale French Studies on cinema and sound in 1980, the field of film music has been largely focused on Hollywood. Not long ago, David Neumeyer recognised that scholars had given ‘disproportionate’ attention to American feature films (2014, p.5). Only recently, studies on film music from other countries have emerged, highlighting the film production specificities of each. At the same time, these studies question implicit assumptions of homogeneity in film music history which tend to equate Hollywood with other film industries around the world.
Similarly, in Latin American Cinema studies, aspects of music and sound have generally been neglected or overlooked, creating a significant gap in understanding the sonic dimension of cinema. In Cinesonidos: Film Music and National Identity During Mexico’s Época de oro, Jaqueline Avila seeks to fill this gap through an in-depth study of Mexican film music during the so-called ‘golden age’ (c.1936–1952). Developed from her PhD thesis, Avila’s text is organised around five film genres that embody specific aspects of Mexican identity. The study is concerned primarily with feature films produced during the 1930s and 1940s, and pays attention to the diverse use of music in dialogue with the social and political changes that Mexican society experienced at the time. There is a noticeable focus on musical numbers, which were vital for Mexican cinema during this period. However, specific attention is given to non-diegetic cues as well. The reader will not find scores or transcriptions of themes; that decision seems to respond to an intention of inscribing the book within the broad Mexican film scholarship rather than a musicological approach. As Avila points out, the objective of this work is not to offer a history of film music in Mexico or a study of specific film composers but rather a contribution to the study of Mexican cinema during the early sound period ‘from a primarily cultural perspective’ (p.8).
An insightful introduction opens with the main concepts and problems the reader will find throughout the book. Avila introduces the chapters offering an exciting discussion on the origins and challenges of the study and some of the decisions, methods and approaches that guided [End Page 199] the research. The problem of national identity appears an overarching topic. As she points out:
In Mexican cinema, several interpretations of ‘the nation’ exist simultaneously, highlighting that although one unified national identity was desirable, it was virtuously impossible to create, as the identities and narratives constructed on the screen were fused with transnational currents and influences. Thus, this book posits that within the process of developing a national film tradition, music has served a significant and fundamental role that has not been fully considered.(p.12)
Avila offers an attractively-written and compelling book that poses a thorough discussion on the role of music within the corpus of films selected, highlighting how it contributes to promoting certain discourses about race, gender and class. Each chapter stands on its own as a valuable piece of work to study those specific genres and the relevance of music in their narratives.
Chapter 1 looks at the prostitute melodrama, a genre that incarnates the perceptions of ‘womanhood in a modernizing society’ (p.17). Avila focuses on two iconic films: Santa (Antonio Moreno, 1932) and Víctimas del pecado (Emilio Fernández, 1950) in order to explore the depictions of brothels and cabarets and their prominent use of danceable musical genres such as bolero, danzón, and rumba. The first part of the chapter offers an illuminating discussion about gender construction in Mexican society, the spaces in which sex work took place and the divergent and somewhat contradictory perceptions towards prostitution during the first decades of twentieth-century Mexico. Later, the chapter concentrates on the aforementioned musical genres and their use in the films to create a sonic imaginary of prostitution and nightlife. In...