Mining Mexican cinema for its music: How songs and scores lend power to the picture

Every April, thousands of Mexicans flock to the grave of Pedro Infante. They bring flowers and tequila and sing songs made famous by the charismatic singer and film star who died in 1957. Many spend the night.

“He’s almost like a saint,” said Daniela Michel, director of the Morelia Film Festival in Mexico. “A lot of people in rural areas have pictures of Pedro Infante in their houses. That tells you a lot about the power of this man — the power of music.”

The Los Angeles Philharmonic celebrated the power of Mexico’s film history and its music Friday night with “Noche de Cine,” conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. It was a tour of the nation’s most important and emblematic movie songs and scores, beginning in the silent era and running through recent films by Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro G. Iñárritu.

Iñárritu curated the program with Michel. They’ve known each other for two decades, since Michel launched a festival for Mexican short films and the director, then in advertising, was a sponsor.

“Mexican cinema is very linked to Mexican music,” she said. “When you think about the themes from the golden age, films with Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante — all these wonderful Mexican stars who were also singers — even to this day, people from other parts of Latin America, even Gustavo Dudamel, know those songs. They’ve seen these films. Somehow, the combination of cinema and music is very strong in our culture.”

Michel combed through a century of music and chose to spotlight a score by Silvestre Revueltas — “the most important [Mexican] composer of the 20th century” — from the 1936 film “Redes” by “High Noon” director Fred Zinnemann. The most recurring name on the program was that of Manuel Esperón, who scored more than 500 films between the 1930s and ’80s.

“Some of these songs are almost like national anthems for us,” Michel said.

Some selections were accompanied by film clips,…

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