15 June 2024
Going Varsity in Mariachi premiered at Sundance London

Sundance London 2023 Review – Going Varsity in Mariachi (2023)

Going Varsity in Mariachi premiered at Sundance London
When I walked into an early morning screening of Going Varsity in Mariachi as part of the 2023 edition of the Sundance London Film Festival, I did not expect to emotionally connect so much with a documentary that focused on a team of competitive Mariachi high-school players in the south of Texas.  And yet, this documentary managed to sweep me into its narration completely, telling its story in an emotional and touching way, thus keeping the audience interested throughout its entire run-time, something that is not always easy when it comes to documentaries.

Mariachi is a type of regional Mexican music performed by an orchestra group where the performers both sing and play their respective instruments. In this documentary, the audience gains an insight into high school varsity Mariachi. As mentioned, Going Varsity in Mariachi is a documentary set in the context of high school mariachi performances and competitions which, as the film promptly informs us, are extremely important to teenagers in schools in South Texas. Throughout the documentary, we follow one specific Mariachi group: the Mariachi Oro from Edinburg North High School, led by their coach Abel Acuña. As they head for the state championship, every member of the group has something at stake in their performance as we get to know some of them on a personal level.

Ultimately the heart of the film is its characters, the real-life people that make up the world of competitive Mariachi. Going Varsity in Mariachi is such a heartwarming film because it follows the story of the underdogs that we inevitably want to root for, the team that seems to be in a weaker position compared to their competitors we only get a glimpse throughout the documentary. Compared to the other seemingly stronger groups, the Mariachi Oro do not have access to a lot of money. The film sheds light on their disadvantages, as they are a recently formed group with newer members, some of whom have only started playing Mariachi in the months leading up to the competitions.

While they may be at a disadvantage, the Mariachi Oro group has a lot at stake in varsity Mariachi. In fact, as the documentary goes on, the audience gets to connect with some of the high schoolers in Mariachi Oro, learning what mariachi means to them and how important these competitions are for everyone. For example, one of them relies on Mariachi to get a scholarship to college and some others want to make Mariachi their future profession, thus highlighting the importance of this extracurricular activity for their future. Going Varsity in Mariachi explains the importance of Mariachi in the life of these kids as historically these programmes were started in schools to keep the kids off the streets.

Going Varsity in Mariachi also excels at conveying the competition aspect. From the very beginning, it is clear that Mariachi is not only an extracurricular activity or a hobby as the competitiveness of it is extremely felt in the Mariachi Oro group. In fact, the rhythm of the documentary is extremely fast and dynamic as Going Varsity in Mariachi features multiple montages leading up to the state competitions. The quick pace we feel throughout the documentary is also heightened by the dramatic music and constant countdowns through intertitles that keep reminding us how fast the competition day is approaching.

While the narrative of Going Varsity in Mariachi is very clear, I wish we could have gained a better insight into some of the members of the group. The Mariachi Oro is made up of many members which means the audience only really gets to see and follow three or four of them thoroughly. While this is understandable, I hoped the viewers would have been able to see more of them. For example, I felt like the trumpet section of the Mariachi Oro was not as explored as the others. As we follow the group into their preparations and rehearsals, it would have been interesting to gain more insight into each group’s struggles and worries leading up to their competition.

Going Varsity in Mariachi is an emotional documentary that really portrays the reality of competitive Mariachi playing, a very fascinating topic many of the viewers may not know have known about beforehand. In fact, I enjoyed learning more about the Mariachi world, both in terms of heritage for the people involved in the documentary and in terms of music, as we get to hear the various pieces played by the Mariachi Oro during their competitions. By the end of the film, I really understood what the documentary meant when it said that “mariachi music is home.”

★★★

Documentary | Mexico/ USA, 2023 | NR | Sundance London 2023 | Sam Osborn, Alejandra Vasquez


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