Going Varsity in Mariachi: SXSW Film Review
Going Varsity in Mariachi is a really interesting and eclectic documentary that proves the cultural power of mariachi – and is a charming underdog story.
In Going Varsity in Mariachi, competitive mariachi is a serious business. As the opening text explains, over 100 public schools in Texas have formed mariachi bands in the hopes of winning the state championships. One of those teams is Mariachi Oro from Edinburg North High School, less than 20 miles from the US-Mexico border. Run by director Abel Acuña, they have been incredibly successful in the past. But as a new year begins, there are challenges ahead for a group full of new recruits. Even Abel admits early on that they are not as ready to compete as in previous years. And so we follow Mariachi Oro as they prepare for the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza and then the big one: the state championships.
Going Varsity in Mariachi is the first feature documentary from Alejandra Vasquez and Sam Osborn, both of Mexican American descent (though with varying levels of attachment to mariachi). The co-directors are adapting the short they made about scholastic mariachi in 2020, right before the pandemic began. This begins at the start of the 2021-22 school year, with COVID still a big obstacle. We see masks and social distancing throughout the early practices whilst Abel remarks he is meeting some of his students in person for the first time. For many of them, this year will be the first time some of them enter one of these competitions.
The film throws a lot of mariachi jargon at you, which can be particularly overwhelming if you are a novice, or principiante. For instance, there are three sections to the band. The violin section is led by varsity captain Bella and has to perform the most complicated music. The trumpets are captained by Kaleb, and the armonia section (led by Marlena) is the most inexperienced. Thankfully, Osborn and Vazquez do an excellent job explaining this world. And they do so by focusing on the people behind the band, like Abel. He is cheerful and supportive but extremely strict on lateness, demonstrating a dedication to Mariachi Oro he hopes to impart to the teenagers.
However, this year sees him more burnt-out than ever, forced to work with limited resources and a budget 5 or 10x lower than other schools. Yet he devotes most of his time to this because he truly wants to change these kids’ lives, which feeds into his soft but disciplined teaching style.
The film also looks in-depth at the students and their dynamics, relationships and stresses. We learn that Drake has only been playing the guitarrón (described as the heartbeat of the group) for three weeks and that Marlena is dating fellow member Mariah. Drake is with someone too, though that becomes a point of contention later on. Furthermore, with many of them in their final year of high school, there is some discussion of the future. Mariah and Marlena want to become teachers in Texas, but can they balance that with their relationship? Elsewhere, another senior named Abby believes mariachi will help her with college. She is one of many in this low-income district who depend on music scholarships to, in Abel’s words, advance.
One of the best parts about Going Varsity in Mariachi is how it highlights the importance of mariachi. All the varsity bands here represent a fundamental part of Mexican culture and heritage, wearing trajes de charro made in Monterrey and performing classic pieces. As Abel says, “we have this music in our blood. It is being at a barbecue and listening to your tios [uncles] playing this music that they grew up on… it is home.” At one point, he gets the group to say what mariachi means to them. As they tell stories about acceptance and hearing the music at funerals, we see the community and love in a band representing a mix of Mexican American cultures.
The documentary has the feel of a sports film throughout, with the montages, pre-game speeches from Abel and the story arcs and setbacks you would find in Any Given Sunday or Rocky. Speaking of the latter, the synth/trap score by Camilo Lara and Demian Galvez reminded me somewhat of Ludwig Göransson’s work on the Creed movies. It also complements well with the mariachi standards by the students (and labelled by the directors). Meanwhile, Daniela I. Quiroz’s editing (which won the film an award at Sundance) flows through a year of footage whilst preserving its heart. And the kinetic camerawork by Michael Crommett adds to a sense of vibrancy and significance, especially with its low-angle pans and Spike Lee head-on shots during the final performance.
Going Varsity in Mariachi is a really interesting and eclectic documentary about the world of scholastic mariachi that proves the music’s cultural power. Osborn and Vasquez excel at taking this novel subject and making a charming underdog story about the teacher and students in one band. What we see of Abel and the band is sweet and sad and frustrating in a way that makes you want to see them succeed. Their passion for mariachi stands out, as do the teenage coming-of-age issues like wanting to leave your home or promposing to your girlfriend. It is a highly engaging film where you feel all the losses, struggles and ultimate highs.
Going Varsity in Mariachi premiered at SXSW 2023 on March 12-18, 2023. Read our SXSW reviews!