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CHUPA – Carlos Rafael Rivera

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

There have been many ‘boy and his pet’ stories, in both film and literature over the decades – the list is too enormous to mention – but the common threads that link so many of them is the way that humans and animals often bond with each other in extraordinary circumstances, and change each other’s lives for the better as a result. This new film, Chupa, directed by Mexican filmmaker Jonás Cuarón (son of Alfonso Cuarón), was inspired by one specific ‘boy and his pet’ story – 1982’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial – but whereas Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece involved friendly aliens, Cuarón’s film involves a creature from Mexican folklore: the chupacabra. The story follows a teenager named Alex (Evan Whitten) who, while visiting family in Mexico, gains an unlikely companion when he discovers a young chupacabra hiding in his grandpa’s shed. To save the mythical creature, Alex and his cousins must embark on the adventure of a lifetime. The film co-stars Demián Bichir and Christian Slater and has been a massive success on Netflix in the weeks since it premiered in April 2023.

The score for Chupa is by Florida-based composer Carlos Rafael Rivera, whose record of quality over quantity is outstanding; he won two Emmys for his scores for the critically acclaimed series Godless and The Queen’s Gambit, won Grammy and IFMCA Awards for The Queen’s Gambit as well, and has also written respected scores for films like A Walk Among the Tombstones. Rivera is a huge film music aficionado – he knows and respects the heritage of the genre as much as any fan – and so when the chance to score Chupa came to him, he saw it as an opportunity to emulate the classic work of John Williams.

In its broadest sense, Chupa is a combination of several iconic Williams children’s adventure scores – not only the aforementioned E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial but also things like Hook and even a bit of Star Wars – combined with a healthy dose of traditional Mexican folk music to give it a touch of local flair. While this mash-up may at first glance seem a little peculiar, it actually works well; the combination of the different styles convey a strong sense of time and place that is quite unique in the world of children’s adventure scores, and people looking for a new approach to them will be pleased to find one here.

The slightly nervous-sounding and mysterious opening “San Javier, Mexico, 1996” plays on all the traditional chupacabra stereotypes – goat-sucking monsters which terrorize villages in the dead of night – with a series of moody orchestral textures that are creative and intense and introduce an appropriate mood of light horror and colorful action. The soft choral tones towards the end of the cue are an especially light touch, and throughout the piece there is a gently undulating motif that appears to represent the concept of chupacabras as a whole.

The proper main theme of the score is introduced in the second cue, “Viajando a México,” as a softly emotional woodwind refrain that gradually grows to encompass the entire orchestra. The observant will immediately spot the melodic similarities between Rivera’s theme and several John Williams themes; the one which immediately jumped out to me was “Across the Stars” from Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, but there are clear influences from things like Hook as well. Look; there’s no point beating around the bush. Rivera was clearly responding to a director temp-track request, and it’s absolutely obvious what the inspiration is, so if you are going to be bothered by similarities like this then nothing I can say will help change your mind. Personally, I have always loved those Williams themes, and Rivera’s versions of them is just as beautiful- and some of the things he does with it later in the score are outstanding. For example, the version in “En Búsqueda de Abuelo” is adventurous and optimistic, but also a little playful and mischievous, confounding the horrific stories of what chupacabras actually are, and presenting them in a whole new light.

Cues like “Cabras Mal Acompañadas,” “Quien Tiene Hambre,” “Por La Noche,” “La Mente de Abuelo,” “En El Mercado,” “Chava y su Cabra – Quinn Desde el Coche,” and many others, adopt more of those light horror textures from earlier in the score, and again reference the undulating chupacabra motif. What I like about these cues is how Rivera avoids the trap of making his horror and suspense music dull; each cue, while low-key and atmospheric, is still filled with little instrumental ideas and rhythmic devices that keep the music interesting on numerous levels. “Primer Encuentro” and “Salchichas,” for example, shift the tone of the chupacabra motif and make it light and magical, with especially prominent use of chimes to add to the sense of wonderment.

The traditional Mexican aspect of the score is incredibly authentic. In addition to the familiar instruments often present in mariachi music (guitar, violin, accordion, Moises Garcia’s bright trumpet), Rivera makes use of a large number of region-specific instruments, including a vihuela lute, a six-stringed requinto guitar, a ukulele-like jarana, an arpe jarocha Mexican harp, and a tololoche Mexican double bass, as well as various percussion items. These textures add flavor to the entire score – you can hear them right from the opening moments of first cue “San Javier, Mexico, 1996” – and they take center stage in several specific cues.

I have never been a fan of super-authentic mariachi music – I have nothing against it’s musicianship, it’s just not my cultural heritage – but I have to admit that what Rivera does with it here is impressive. I especially like the warm, inviting tones of “Casa de Abuelo,” the strummed guitars and Flamenco-esque dance rhythms in “Memo Enseñando a Chupa,” and the bold effervescence of “Despedida de Luna y Memo”. It’s also worth noting the pretty music box theme, “La Cajita de Música,” the melody of which is the basis for the end credits song “Siempre Volaré (En Tus Sueños)”.

Once Alex and his new chupacabra friend begin to bond Rivera adds a different element to the score through a gorgeous new cello theme which speaks to their friendship. It appears to be related to the undulating chupacabra motif, but Rivera emphasizes the emotional element much more strongly; cues like “Alex y Chupa” are just gorgeous, and then later cues like “Primera Despedida” and “Encontrando a Mi Familia” revisit the same ideas with tenderness, and are often accompanied by wondrous choral tones.

The second half of the score also contains some fun, scampering action music, which is again often layered with allusions to one or more of the main themes. “Chava y Chupa” is fun, both “Lucha Libre” and “El Demonio Azul” have some intense and densely-layered percussion textures competing with dashing strings and bold and brassy Mariachi instrumentation that are just excellent. “En Peligro – Encontrando Alas” is initially more contemporary, with a throbbing brass element and dark rhythmic strings, but quickly returns back to its capacious mariachi style, before ending with a magnificent emotional sweep. “Chupa y Su Familia” and “Azul!!!” are the action highlights, with the latter being an especially extravagant (but sadly too short) peak, before the whole thing climaxes in the sweeping “Volando”.

As I mentioned before, the end credits song “Siempre Volaré (En Tus Sueños)” was written by Rivera with director Jonás Cuarón and legendary Tijuana singer/songwriter Julieta Venegas, and is based on the music box melody from the body of the score. Venegas is an icon in Latin indie pop and rock circles, so to get her to contribute to this soundtrack appears to be something of a scoop; the song will certainly not go on to be considered one of her classics, but it’s got a catchy beat and a positive, upbeat sound that I really like.

Chupa is a great score that blends warm-hearted children’s fantasy-adventure scoring with a healthy dose of authentic traditional Mexican folk music, and eventually coalesces into a uniquely-pitched but wholly worthwhile variation on a familiar genre. I’m especially happy to see that Carlos Rafael Rivera is branching out and working with other filmmakers after spending so long as the sole collaborator of Scott Frank. As great as A Walk Among the Tombstones, Godless, The Queen’s Gambit are, and as much as I want to see that relationship continue, I also selfishly want to see Rivera scoring more than one project a year, tackling multiple genres and for multiple directors. He’s a superb composer with a keen sensibility for great film music, and Chupa just confirms that further.

Buy the Chupa soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • San Javier, Mexico, 1996 (6:33)
  • Papá (0:51)
  • Viajando a México (1:08)
  • Casa de Abuelo (1:33)
  • Cabras Mal Acompañadas (0:42)
  • Quien Tiene Hambre? (1:53)
  • Por La Noche (1:41)
  • La Mente de Abuelo (0:53)
  • Por La Mañana (0:46)
  • Memorias de tu Papá (0:52)
  • En Búsqueda de Abuelo (2:03)
  • En El Mercado (0:32)
  • Chava y su Cabra – Quinn Desde el Coche (2:02)
  • Abuelo No Esta Bien (0:59)
  • La Cajita de Música (1:10)
  • Primer Encuentro (1:36)
  • Salchichas (1:32)
  • Alex y Chupa (2:11)
  • Memo, Luna, y Chupa (1:52)
  • Chava y Chupa (1:44)
  • Quinn Llega a Casa de Abuelo (2:07)
  • Memo Enseñando a Chupa (1:00)
  • Tu Papá y El Perico Verde (0:45)
  • Lucha Libre (2:15)
  • Quinn y Chupa (1:53)
  • El Plan de Alex (0:55)
  • Levantate Abuelo (0:58)
  • El Demonio Azul (2:41)
  • Quinn Persigue (3:03)
  • Primera Despedida (1:51)
  • En Peligro – Encontrando Alas (4:58)
  • Quinn Persiste (1:03)
  • Chupa y Su Familia (2:39)
  • Azul!!! (0:51)
  • Encontrando a Mi Familia (1:35)
  • Despedida de Luna y Memo (0:56)
  • Adiós Abuelo (1:43)
  • Volando (0:58)
  • Siempre Volaré (En Tus Sueños) (written by Julieta Venegas, Carlos Rafael Rivera, and Jonás Cuarón, performed by Julieta Venegas) (3:55)

Running Time: 68 minutes 57 seconds

Netflix Music (2023)

Music composed by Carlos Rafael Rivera. Conducted by José Aréan. Orchestrations by Jeremy Levy, Lorenzo Carrano and Sarah Lynch. Additional music by David Stal, Asuka Ito and Ray Kim. Recorded and mixed by Justin Moshkevich and Lawrence Manchester. Edited by Tom Kramer. Album produced by Carlos Rafael Rivera, Dan Zlotnik and Camilo Froideval.

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