Saturday, June 23, 2012

PBS Arts: Mariachi High

It is like Friday Night Lights, except with more talented kids.  For some Texas high schools, Mariachi band competitions are a big, big deal.  Small upstart Zapata High School has a winning tradition, but they had some rebuilding to do after many top seniors graduated.  The Zapata Halcon ensemble is out to recapture their title in Ilana Trachtman and Kim Connell’s documentary Mariachi High (promo here), which kicks off the PBS Summer Arts Festival this coming Friday on most Public Broadcasting outlets.

Conceived as a program to keep students from dropping out, Texas’s High Mariachi bands have been a resounding success. However, Zapata High School is not a blackboard jungle.  As presented by Trachtman and Connell, the rural school is clean, orderly, and academically rigorous.  Not so coincidentally, the school’s top students also belong to Mariachi Halcon.

The high expectations for the Zapata band members start with their director, former professional musician Adrian Padilla.  Obviously a good coach, he never berates the students over wins and losses, but accepts no excuses for an insufficiently entertaining show.

Watching High, one suspects there is a longer cut out there making the festival rounds.  The version airing Friday feels a little rushed, marching through try-outs, an important tournament, and the state championship, only briefly stopping for getting-to-know-you scenes with Padilla and the band.  Still, to the filmmakers’ credit, they never skimp on the music. Nor do they shy away from some of the more politically incorrect, chauvinistic lyrics.

Even at its fifty-four minute broadcast running time, High would be a good companion film to Bruce Broder’s CHOPS, a film that should have gone farther after screening at Tribeca five years ago.  It is invigorating to see young people’s enthusiasm for music in both films.  It is also a depressing reminder of how much was lost by the borderline criminal mismanagement of the late lamented International Association of Jazz Education.

Aside from a concluding pitch for music education funding, High wisely avoids politics.  Yet, the depiction of high achieving college bound Hispanic students and their supportive parents might well challenge a number of stereotypes out there.  While not as rousing (or flat-out funky) as Mark Landsman’s Thunder Soul, there are plenty of feel good moments in Mariachi High.  Nice stuff for free TV, it airs Friday (6/29) on New York’s Thirteen.