How Camilo Lara helped Pixar turn Coco from PR disaster to Oscar triumph

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Interview by Andy Gregory

Pixar's latest animated movie Coco was another global, tear-jerking hit at cinemas, charming audiences and picking up Oscars.

Telling the heartwarming tale of Miguel, a young Mexican boy on a quest through the Land of the Dead to gain his family's blessing to play music, it is now the highest grossing film in Mexican history and claimed the Academy Awards for 'Best Animated Feature' and 'Best Original Song'.

But it wasn't always destined to be this way.

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Things got off to a shaky start when parent company Disney attempted to trademark Mexican festival 'Día De Los Muertos' - not unlike attempting to trademark Christmas - and drew ire from many prominent Mexican artists and commentators.

A team of experts were hastily assembled in order to avoid any such future mistakes.

Esteemed Mexican musician Camilo Lara was one such expert, brought on board as a cultural advisor alongside artist Lalo Alcaraz, who had previously been a particularly vocal (and visual) critic.

By working with Pixar's Hollywood team, the pair were able to infuse the film with cultural integrity.

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'It was properly handled by Pixar'

Diplomatically, albeit sincerely, Lara says he believes the controversy "was properly handled by Pixar", adding that the film was "always meant to be a love letter to Mexico."

Coco boldly weaves darker elements into a music-infused animation that has the ability to delight, entertain and move both children and adults to tears.

Notably, he goes on to commend Pixar's bravery in making a movie that celebrates Mexico in a post-Trump world.

"In the most anti-Mexican year in the United States, it is very brave to have a movie that portrays Mexico as a good thing.

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"I think it was really helpful for Mexicans in the States and Mexicans in general, delivered in the Trump years."

Lara's first became involved with Coco when the director, Lee Unkrich, contacted him on Facebook.

"First I needed to help him navigate all the different rhythms from understand the geography of the music," he explains.

Lara then helped with arrangement and production of the songs that permeate Coco, including Oscar-winner 'Remember Me'.

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He also assisted composer Michael Giacchino (Up, Star Wars: Rogue One), to "marinate his music with the Mexican influence".

A 'Mexican Obi-Wan Kenobi'

A glance at Lara's credentials show why he was such an essential part of making Coco a success.

At 15 he started working at EMI Mexico and by the time he left at 25, he was head of the label.

"Because they kept firing people, I ended up being the boss," he jokes. "I had to have a job to buy records, so for me the most logical thing was to be in a record company."

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Lara's penchant for record-collecting and ear for a marketable sound soon led to a more hands-on approach. What began as an annual Christmas mixtape for his friends soon turned into a full time occupation.

In 2007, Lara released his first of five albums under the pseudonym, Mexican Institute of Sound - a joyfully exuberant blend of electronica, traditional Latin American music and cumbia (for the uninitiated, cumbia is a lively, eclectic style of music born in Colombia).

As MIS, Lara capitalises fully upon his ability to recall even the most obscure pieces of music and piece them together into an often ground-breaking, ever-satisfying mosaic of sound.

This encyclopedic knowledge of music led Giacchino to refer to Lara in an interview as "our Mexican Obi-Wan Kenobi".

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A musical Odyssey worthy of legend

Lara undertook an epic journey of discovery during the making of Coco. He and the team spent a monumental six years travelling around the streets of Mexico, meeting the "crème de la crème" of musicians in every genre.

Lara makes a cameo as the DJ in several party scenes, wearing his signature hat and 'Give Cumbia a Chance' T-shirt

"The stuff we didn't put in the movie was as important as the stuff we did put in the movie," Lara explains.

"When you see Santa Cecilia [Coco's fictional town] you can really feel it's Mexico because it has these real musicians and is the real deal. You have these three or four types of music sounding, and that’s Mexico."

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"A hundred" of the "most legendary Mexican musicians" were then brought into the studio.

"We [had] from banda to mariachi, some marimba players [and] son jarocho music. There was even a Pre-Hispanic musician who plays the seashell and the donkey jawbone and crazy, weird Pre-Hispanic instruments - that was fun!

"It’s very interesting because they pass their artistry from generation to generation, so it’s definitely so unique and they have their own instruments."

Each sound and instrument were then visually recreated with the utmost accuracy - every note played on-screen matches reality, which subtly reinforces the viewer's immersion in Coco's world.

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"It really is like a polaroid picture of what is the [Mexican] music scene nowadays,” he says, proudly.

'A love letter to Mexico'

Lately, Lara has been finding other ways to employ his talents in celebration of Mexico. In a fortnight, he's opening La Linea, London's Latin music festival, with a celebration of Mexican film music through the ages called Sonorama.

The show - fresh from the Getty Center in LA - will see Lara put his signature spin on tracks by the likes of Lalo Schifrin (Mission Impossible, Hawaii 5-O), Maria Drever and his own personal hero, Juan Garcia Esquivel.

Lara recalls meeting his idol, through a chance encounter in a bar with a member of underground heroes, Combustible Edison, who was in Mexico to visit Esquivel.

Juan Garcia Esquivel (Photo: supplied)

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Esquivel was bed-bound with a broken hip: "I started visiting every weekend and brought him albums, a turntable, other people’s music.

"He was just like a punk rocker trapped in an 80-something year old’s body. It was magical. He was like ‘oh yeah, this guy Quentin called me, he’s a film director and wants me to do something, Quentin Tarantino - you know him?’"

Lara's no stranger to La Linea - a collaboration with the festival in 2015 kick-started another project that has taken the world by storm - Mexrrissey. Their Mexican reinterpretation of Morrissey's music has been the darling of critics worldwide and is doing a solid job of keeping Moz's light from going out.

This year, they're performing The Smiths' 'The Queen is Dead' album, complete with mariachi guitars, horns and Lara's signature electronic inflections.

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Lara's musical odyssey was crucial to the feel of Coco (Photo: Disney/Pixar)

While Mexxrissey might not include any music from Coco, Lara promises that Sonorama will.

"If you want to get a sampler of what is happening in Latin America in terms of sound, I think La Linea is a perfect way to get initiated."

Camilo Lara is opening La Linea Festival on Friday April 20 at Barbican Hall, London. Coco will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK next month.

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