Playlist: Les Blank’s Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazon
Chulas Fronteras (Les Blank and Chris Strachwitz, 1976)
Midway through Les Blank’s invigorating, joyful 1976 doc Chulas Fronteras (“Beautiful Borders”), la leyenda Lydia Mendoza—sitting in a colorful kitchen, surrounded by bowls of masa and chiles, ingredients for tamales—declares: “For me, whether I’m singing a corrido, a waltz, a bolero, a polka, or whatever—when I sing that song, it feels like I’m living that moment. I feel what I’m singing. That’s how I feel for every song I sing.” This intensity comes through brilliantly in the performances captured in both Chulas Fronteras (co-directed by Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz) and its 1979 companion film Del Mero Corazon. Like the best of Blank’s films on music, these two documentaries on the norteño and conjunto music of the Texas border vividly demonstrate the organic flow between music and culture, presenting the songs and recordings as a natural, integral part of the musicians’ lives as Mexican-Americans. The films make clear that the corridos belted out on screen by artists like Flaco and Santiago Jimenez, Los Pengüinos del Norte, Los Alegres de Terán, and other giants of the genre, are American to the core, the products and stories of immigrants and laborers struggling for footholds in a new country. When Blank’s camera follows workers into the fields and orchards—scenes reminiscent of Danny Lyon’s underseen El Otro Lado—the connection between the lived experience of this community and the soulful narratives of the corridos is powerfully driven home.
New 4K restorations of Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazon open at Metrograph on June 28.
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Clinton Krute is Film Comment’s digital editor.