I saw two movies over Christmas break, The Last Jedi and Coco. I don’t feel like reviewing The Last Jedi right now, even though I enjoyed it. Maybe it needs to percolate a bit longer, or maybe with all the hype and dissection afterwards it just didn’t seem like I had anything to add. But Coco was a delightful surprise. I’d heard it was about the Mexican custom of celebrating the Day of the Dead and honoring one’s ancestors, but I hadn’t realized it was about music. The film has been out for a while, so I’m not going to be concerned about spoilers. If you are, please stop reading here.
Coco starts out as a sort of Cinderella/Harry Potter-ish tale, with a child, Miguel, who doesn’t feel like he belongs with the rest of his family. He plays a homemade guitar and sings, hiding in the attic where he has built a little shrine to his musical hero, Ernesto de la Cruz, a celebrity singer and guitarist. His family of shoemakers is mean to him, and seemingly tone-deaf about what he needs. The scene in which his grandmother smashes his guitar is particularly harsh. At first the idea that the family hates music and has banished it from their home because of their musician ancestor who abandoned the family seemed overdone and melodramatic to me. The story was heavily weighted in sympathy with poor little Miguel, forbidden by these old, hidebound meanies from following his sacred dreams. The film is visually gorgeous and inventive, so I was prepared to enjoy that aspect of it even if the story was cliched.
And then the story surprised me.
In order to “seize his moment” and enter the talent show his family forbade, Miguel tries to steal Ernesto de la Cruz’s guitar from his mausoleum, and thereby becomes cursed and sent to the Land of the Dead. There he meets the ancestors he has heard so much about over the years. He meets Hector, a ne’er-do-well who seems good only for comic relief, and he meets his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz, as big a celebrity in death as in life.
The rules governing the Land of the Dead are both complicated and unforgiving: souls can’t cross back to the Land of the Living, even for a holiday visit, unless their ancestors have put their photo on the family’s ofrenda, a ritual altar for the Day of the Dead containing a collection of objects associated with the familial ancestors. (One might wonder what happened in the days before photos, but that, and other equally interesting questions, are left to the viewer’s imagination). Hector, whose descendants put up no photo of him, tries to cross every year by disguising himself as someone else who does have an ofrenda photo, and keeps getting caught and returned. Ernesto, who has no known living descendants, prefers to stay in the Land of the Dead anyway, where he is still a big celebrity who throws a swanky concert and sunrise party. Hector claims to have known and played music with Ernesto in life, and offers to take Miguel to him.
At first, Miguel’s meeting with Ernesto goes well. Miguel is convinced that Ernesto is his long-lost great-great-grandfather, and that Miguel is his rightful musical heir. Ernesto parades around with Miguel at the party and urges him to do “whatever it takes” to follow his own dream. But in the course of their conversations, Hector shows up, and it is revealed that not only did Hector and Ernesto know each other and play together, but that Hector wrote Ernesto’s most famous songs. And not only that, but Hector wanted to go home to his family, and Ernesto murdered him and stole the songs for himself. Hector, not Ernesto, was really Miguel’s great-great-grandfather. And Hector didn’t abandon his family on purpose; he was murdered while trying to return to them.
Miguel returns to the Land of the Living and, in a touching scene, plays Hector’s most famous song for his great-grandmother Coco, Hector’s now-elderly daughter. She is the last living person who remembers Hector, and hearing Miguel play the music awakens her from what may be the silence of Alzheimer’s Disease. The denouement is graceful and returns Hector’s photo to its rightful place on the family’s ofrenda.
Most of these customs were new to me, as a Northern-and-Middle-European American, and I enjoyed that aspect of the movie very much. I had initially been a little put off of going to it at all because I recoil from the stylized iconography of death. I just don’t like skulls and skeletons; I find them creepy and uncomfortable, and not a fashion statement. Watching this movie, I got over those feelings in about 2 minutes. The filmmakers did their homework and Mexican culture and customs are treated with respect and love. For their perspective, read these wonderful reviews by Latino Film Critics.
I would like to offer my personal thoughts from the perspective of a musician. I don’t play the guitar; I play the violin and viola, stringed instruments with a different provenance. And I’m a musical mudblood, a Hermione Grainger (but with less talent). When I was Miguel’s age, my family didn’t hate music: they bought me my first instruments, came to my school concerts, and paid for and shuttled me to and from lessons. But they didn’t play music themselves, either. In fact my father had a bad experience with being forced to play the clarinet as a child, and he gave it up as soon as he left home. And my mother’s large working class family had not had money for music. So I don’t see myself as having come from musical roots. If it hadn’t been for that public school orchestra program I had in 4th grade, I doubt I’d be playing today. I still identified and sympathized with Miguel for that reason: music and family can be complicated.
The other reason I identified and sympathized with Miguel was that he became swept up in the excitement of achievements, goals, dreams, fame, and celebrity glitz. That is how music–even classical violin/viola music–is sold to us these days. Especially in early January when resolution mania reaches a fever pitch, we are exhorted from every side and even from within to seize our moment, do whatever it takes, and take charge of our dreams. It’s a seductive call to action; it’s the golden flower-petal promise of youth. Of course Miguel would desire it too. Don’t we all?
Coco may be the first mainstream, mass-market movie shown in the United States that I’ve seen that dares to suggest that this “seize your moment” and “follow your dreams” attitude has a dark side. And it doesn’t just suggest that, it spells it out plainly: no, doing “whatever it takes” to achieve your dream is not admirable. It can be downright evil. It can destroy families and destroy lives.
What had me crying tears of joy at its end is that this film doesn’t stop there as a cautionary tale. It offers an alternative: music as a way of connecting people and bringing them together in love. Coco, Hector’s daughter and Miguel’s great-grandmother, is the perfect title character. Elderly by the time the film takes place, she is brought back to herself by Miguel’s singing the song she heard her father sing when she was a child. At the end of the film, a year later, Miguel is shown playing joyfully on a new guitar. His cousin Rosa appears to have taken up the violin. Miguel didn’t have to make that false choice between his musical dreams and his family. He could have both.
Featured Picture: Concept art by Robert Kondo. ©2017 Disney•Pixar.