Judge Jason Panella went to Cumbia Prep School.
High school never sounded so good.
The students at Zapata High School in south Texas are typical American teenagers: they worry about their classes, get confused about dating, and struggle with popularity. But they also spend a lot of time thinking about Mariachi, because even though it's a small school, Zapata has one of the most acclaimed Mariachi ensembles in the state.
Mariachi High is a snapshot year-in-the-life of the students who participate in Mariachi Halcon, Zampta High's competitive band. These are incredible talented musicians, and it shows. Mariachi is melodramatic Mexican folk music that takes some chops to get right, and the Halcon have regularly bested larger, better-funded big city schools. The film begins in the fall of 2010, following the graduation of a large number of Halcon's core players. We follow the bandmates as they train for two large in-state competitions, along the way learning a bit about the history of Mariachi and the students' motivations for playing it.
Taken as is, Mariachi High is wonderful stuff; an energetic and well-produced slice of life I knew nothing about beforehand. When you start thinking about the missing pieces, however, the cracks in the film begin to show. Through interviews, we meet the students in Mariachi Halcon, but never spend enough time to get a real sense of who they are. I would've loved to learn more about them and the Mexican heritage of their community. The same goes for the music. For a documentary on folk music that doesn't get hardly any exposure in a large portion of America, you'd think directors Kim Connell and Ilana Trachtman would have include at least one full performance. Designed to fit into an hour-long block for PBS, there's just not enough time to tell a story that's two or three times as long.
On the plus side, there's a substantial amount of bonus material to supplement the feature. Extended clips take more in-depth looks at the lives of some of students. A brief "Where are they now?" epilogue catches up with some of the kids a year after the documentary wrapped. And in answer to my music-related complaint, there's a "Mari-oki" sing-along performed by the band.
Mariachi High is a solid, well-shot documentary that's consistently interesting. Had the film been given room to breathe, it could have been something truly special.
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