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Expressive restraint

Gustavo Santaolalla is building on his reputation as a Latin-music producer by scoring high-profile movies.

August 03, 2003|Ernesto Lechner | Special to The Times

For the first time in his life, Ernesto "Che" Guevara contemplates the otherworldly beauty of the Amazon jungle -- and likes what he sees.

El Che is still a kid at this point, a restless youngster exploring Latin America on a motorcycle with his best friend. He ventures into the Amazon in a boat, and the music that accompanies his pilgrimage is everything you would expect the soundtrack for a road movie to be: soulful, moody and ethereal.

It's a busy morning inside Gustavo Santaolalla's recording studio, where the Argentine musician is putting the finishing touches to his score for "The Motorcycle Diaries" -- the coming movie by "Central Station" director Walter Salles that follows Guevara in the early years before he became a political firebrand.

Now the images on the studio monitor show Guevara -- as portrayed by actor Gael Garcia Bernal -- visiting a village populated by lepers. Santaolalla works the massive soundboard in front of him, and a majestic crescendo of gloomy sounds, exotic and orchestral, fills the room.

"It's all organic," says Anibal Kerpel, Santaolalla's longtime collaborator and producing partner. "There's no keyboards here." The scene's soundscapes are a combination of processed guitars and the weird music that Santaolalla creates by locking himself in the recording booth and blowing on PVC plumbing pipes, the kind of hardware you're more likely to find on a construction site than in a recording studio.

The scene is over. Santaolalla -- a bearlike 51-year-old man blessed with a disarming smile and irrepressibly ebullient demeanor -- changes programs on his computer and the monitor begins playing a scene from a different movie. It's "21 Grams," Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's follow-up to "Amores Perros."

An almost unrecognizable Sean Penn is lying on a hospital bed, fighting for his life. The music cue for this scene is equally intense but drastically different in tone.

Where "Motorcycle Diaries" had a tribal feel, combining Andean rootsiness with rock 'n' roll pathos, the score for "21 Grams" makes you think of dying and going to blues heaven -- the languid guitar work illustrating the nocturnal emotional landscape of the movie's wounded souls.

Santaolalla smiles proudly. He is scoring the two most anticipated Latino-themed movies of the year.

Revered as visionary

For the time being, Santaolalla is relatively unknown as far as the American mainstream is concerned. But his status is almost legendary within the field of Latin music, where he is revered as a visionary record producer.

A former rock star in his native Argentina, Santaolalla moved to Los Angeles in the '80s. It was here that he formed an artistic partnership with fellow rocker and compatriot Kerpel. The pair soon built a studio in Kerpel's Echo Park home and began recording some of the most promising bands in the burgeoning genre known as rock en espanol or Latin rock.

Working with quality artists such as Cafe Tacuba, Julieta Venegas and Juanes, Santaolalla established a reputation as a sonic alchemist of sorts -- the Latin equivalent of a Rick Rubin or a Daniel Lanois. Far from merely guiding the recording sessions, he became a producer's producer -- advising artists on song structure, performing on their albums and consistently generating a luminous mood of sonic purity that is instantly identifiable.

By the late '90s, Santaolalla was fielding requests from nearly every major artist in Latin rock. Still, there was a side of him that pined to express itself -- as the founder of '70s Argentine supergroup Arco Iris, he had experimented with an intriguing fusion of rock and traditional South American motifs, performing native instruments such as the charango and the ronroco.

When he discovered a tape of instrumental pieces that he had recorded 13 years ago, Santaolalla transferred this material to digital equipment and began working on it in his spare time with Kerpel's assistance.

The resulting product had a serene, austere quality that attracted the attention of the Nonesuch record label. Titled "Ronroco," the disc was released in 1998 and enjoyed limited commercial success. But it quickly became a cult item among world music aficionados and artists from various disciplines.

"It's an album that doesn't demand your attention. It just embraces you," says actor Benicio Del Toro, who has been using "Ronroco" as the musical backdrop for the screenwriting sessions of a movie he is putting together. "It moves your feelings without manipulating you. That's precisely why Gustavo's music is so good for the cinema."

Del Toro wasn't the only industry fan. Director Michael Mann used a track from the album on a crucial scene of his 1999 picture "The Insider." At first, Santaolalla could not understand how this intimate slice of Latin folk would fit in Mann's tobacco industry drama.

When he saw the result, however, he was thrilled -- realizing that his music worked particularly well when juxtaposed against moving pictures.

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