Getting high on mariachi: 'Mariachi High,' 6/29 on PBS

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Mariachi High, directed by Ilana Trachtman and Kim Connell, is not your usual public television Latino hagiography. It is a fascinating documentary on the world of high-school-level mariachi and the key role San Antonio plays in it. As the first U.S. city where Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán (the world's most respected ranchera group) performed, San Antonio will forever be linked to the genre's history. But our city is also part of its present: every year, SA's Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza is the goal of mariachi orchestras from elementary, middle school, high school, colleges, and universities throughout the nation. It is here that U.S.-based mariachis meet to let a jury (led by Mariachi Vargas) decide which is the best.

In 2009, Zapata-based Mariachi Halcón entered the race having won three years in a row. The Zapata High kids were considered heavyweights and the mariachi to beat. But after the seniors graduated, Mariachi Halcón had to regroup. Gorgeously shot, Mariachi High shows the grueling auditions and rehearsals as they are, with no embellishments.

"That was atrocious!" says Mariachi Halcón director and Zapata HS Fine Arts teacher Adrián Padilla, laughing with his team after a candidate badly failed his singing audition. In spite of the insensitive moment, Padilla is a demanding teacher who knows and loves the genre and knows when to stop a rehearsal.

Mariachi High shows Mariachi Halcón's journey from Zapata to San Antonio, and, ultimately, Austin, were they performed at the State's Capitol. It is a story of love of music, heartbreak, and hope. But it also shows, without even trying, the ugly part of it all: these kids (even the lesser mariachis) are genuine artists spending their time on a good thing. Yet, they're taught that winning is the only thing that matters.

"When they won, they felt they were doing something," said Padilla at one point. Wrong. Mariachi requires excellent instrumental and vocal skills, and the kids in every single one of these orchestras put on a great show and were always doing "something."

Mariachi High doesn't stress that fact. Instead, it lets the music speak for itself. — Enrique Lopetegui

Mariachi High

***1/2

9pm Fri, June 29

PBS (KLRN)

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