Over the course of several decades, Gustavo Santaolalla has been recognized as a gifted multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, producer, and composer.
He has enjoyed a multi-phased career that took him from his home country of Argentina to the United States, Mexico City, and back to Los Angeles. His storied journey includes Grammy and Oscar wins, and the respect of the entire movie and music industries for his artistic accomplishments. Some of his Oscar-winning scores include Brokeback Mountain, The Motorcycle Diaries, Babel, and August: Osage County, as well as Grammy wins for his production work with Julietta Venegas, Cafe Tacuba and several others. His score for the video game The Last of Us also won awards from the video game industry. His solo albums, notably Camino and Ronroco, were also nominated for Grammys.
Santaolalla began his career as a teenager when he founded the Argentine rock band Arco Iris. They released several albums, some of them quite influential, before he fled his native country as it descended into a terrible military dictatorship in the late '70s. Santaolalla went to Los Angeles, where he began a modest production career that would turn downright revolutionary by the tail-end of the '80s when he began producing breakthrough albums for key bands amid the burgeoning rock en español scene. This production work carried him through the '90s and into the next century, as he worked with such major Latin artists as Juanes, Julieta Venegas, and Molotov. His production work slowed, however, once he began composing film scores and producing soundtracks, among them Amores Perros (2000), The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), and Brokeback Mountain (2005). By this point, especially in the wake of his Academy Award for Brokeback Mountain, he was often better known for his film work than his music production, not to mention his sporadic solo albums. Nonetheless, he remained a highly respected figure among Latin musicians and within the industry, and an association with him was generally considered the Midas touch.
Born in 1952 in El Palomar, a city in the Gran Buenos Aires metropolitan area of Argentina, Santaolalla began guitar lessons at age five, continuing them for five years without ever learning to read or write music. As a teenager, he formed Arco Iris in 1967 with Ara Tokatlián and Guillermo Bordarampé; he was the band's singer, songwriter, and guitarist. Fusing rock with Latin American folk music, Arco Iris released several albums -- Arco Iris (1969), Tiempo de Resurrección (1972), Sudamérica o el Regreso a la Aurora (1972), Inti Raymi (1973), and Agitor Lucens V (1975) -- before Santaolalla left the band. One of the premier "rock nacional" (i.e., Argentine rock) acts of the early '70s, Arco Iris were also notable for their association with Danais Wynnycka, a spiritual guru with whom the band lived communally, and also for their progressive rock ambitions, which included a double-LP rock opera (Sudamérica o el Regreso a la Aurora), and special performances of Agitor Lucens V accompanied by a ballet choreographed by Argentine legend Oscar Aráiz. "Mañana Campestre" remains the band's most popular song.
The remaining members of Arco Iris carried on following the departure of Santaolalla, who formed a new band, Soluna, which also included Alejandro Lerner, who would later become a noteworthy singer/songwriter himself, and Mónica Campins. Soluna released one album, Energia Natural (1977), and performed sporadically in Argentina and Uruguay before Santaolalla decided to leave this band as well. He was tired of life in Argentina, which was suffocating culturally under the presidency of military general Jorge Rafael Videla, who had assumed his position as ruler of the country following the 1976 junta that removed President Isabel de Perón, Juan Perón's widow, from office. Videla's government was increasingly cracking down on dissidents, rounding up citizens who posed any threat. (Years later, Videla was charged with homicide, among other crimes, and was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Tens of thousands of citizens "disappeared" during his reign.) Given the stifling atmosphere of the time, Santaolalla, who was targeted by the authorities because he was a musician and because of his long hair, fled the country, relocating to Los Angeles in 1978 -- after the conclusion of that summer's World Cup, of course, for it was held in Argentina.
In Los Angeles, Santaolalla knew no one and had to start from scratch. Enamored with the fledging punk and new wave movements of the time, he started another band, Wet Picnic, which also included a fellow Argentine expatriate, Anibal Kerpel. The band played a lot of gigs and eventually released an EP on Unicorn Records, Balls Up (1982). More importantly, the collaboration between Santaolalla and Kerpel in Wet Picnic established a productive working relationship that would endure for decades. In addition to his stint in Wet Picnic, Santaolalla kept busy as a producer. His first production work came courtesy of León Gieco. The Argentine folk legend flew to Los Angeles in October 1980 to join Santaolalla, who produced three songs for Pensar en Nada, released the following year to considerable success in Argentina. In 1981, Santaolalla composed a soundtrack for director Robert Dornhelm's film She Dances Alone, and produced an album by the Plugz, Better Luck (1981), on which he also performed. A couple songs from the album ended up being compiled for the Repo Man soundtrack in 1984. Around this time, he recorded a solo album with the assistance of keyboardist Alejandro Lerner, bassist Alfredo Toth, and drummer Willy Iturri, titled simply Santaolalla (1982), which, like Pensar en Nada, was well-received in his native country.
Following these early years in Los Angeles, Santaolalla returned to Argentina in the wake of the country's 1983 presidential election, which brought Raúl Alfonsín to power; he re-established an air of freedom and justice in the country. There in Argentina, Santaolalla reunited with Gieco for an ambitious project that would be documented in various mediums as De Ushuahia a La Quiaca (1985). For roughly two years, Santaolalla and Gieco traveled from the southernmost region of Argentina (Ushuahia, in Terra del Fuego) to the northernmost (La Quiaca, along the Bolivian border). Throughout their travels, they recorded folk musicians in their own environments; Santaolalla produced the results using generators to power his recording equipment. The effort ended up resembling the Cuban Buena Vista Social Club (1997), with Gieco taking on the role embodied by Ry Cooder in the latter. De Ushuahia a La Quiaca was successful on several counts. It spawned a pair of follow-up volumes, not to mention several television programs, and on a personal level, it also introduced Santaolalla to his wife, Alejandra Palacios, a photographer who was part of the project.
Emboldened by the success of De Ushuahia a La Quiaca, Santaolalla dedicated himself to production work, and he turned his focus to Mexico, which was undergoing its own political upheaval in the late '80s. The country was suffering from an economic crisis, and when an earthquake struck Mexico City in 1985, killing 10,000 people, the situation turned dire. Moreover, the presidential election of 1988 took a fateful turn when the computer the country planned to use to count votes, a brand-new IBM AS/400, suddenly crashed on the day of the election. The government publicly announced "se cayó el sistema" (the system crashed), and when the votes were tallied later, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate, Carlos Salinas, was declared the winner. This was expected, for the PRI party had controlled the government for the preceding 59 years (1929-1988); however, this was the first time the vote was controversial, and consequently "se cayó el sistema" became a cynical Mexican catch phrase. In turn, the PRI party fractured, resulting in the emergence the following year of the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Moreover, the state-controlled media monopoly in Mexico began to break down, and the longtime ban on rock concerts in Mexico City, enacted in 1968, also came under pressure following a government-approved Rod Stewart concert in the state of Queretaro in 1988.
Amid all of this cultural upheaval was an appetite for American-style rock music, especially with the influence of Soda Stereo so prevalent across Latin America at the time, and so Santaolalla began producing Mexican rock albums. In particular, Maldita Vecindad's Y Los Hijos del Quinto Patio (1989) and El Circo (1991), and Caifanes' El Diablito (1990); these greatly fueled the burgeoning rock en español movement of the time. Santaolalla's work wasn't exclusively Mexican, however. He also produced albums by Los Prisioneros (Chile) and El Divididos (Argentina), for example. But he was drawn primarily to Mexico. This was partly because of its proximity to Los Angeles, yet perhaps more importantly, it was because of the atmosphere of cultural upheaval there, which he found reminiscent of Argentina during his youth, when the Argentine rock scene was in full swing. In the midst of this rock en español uprising, he founded Café Tacuba, arguably rock en español's premier act -- and certainly the most popular -- and the band with which Santaolalla's production work would become most often associated.
During the '90s, Santaolalla produced many other popular bands besides Café Tacuba, including Julieta Venegas (Aquí ), Molotov (¿Dónde Jugarán las Niñas? ), Fobia (Amor Chiquito ), the Gipsy Kings (Tierra Gitana ), Peyote Asesino (Terraja ), Bersuit Vergarabat (Libertinaje ), and Puya (Solo , Fundamental ). In 2000 he added Juanes to his roster, with whom he enjoyed tremendous international success over the course of several albums, most notably Un Día Normal (2002). With few exceptions, each of these albums was released by Universal Latino, which partnered with Santaolalla; in fact, the two formed a joint venture in 1997, forming Surco, the producer's own boutique label (a sublabel, Vibra, was founded later). In addition to production, Santaolalla recorded a pair of solo albums, Gas (1995), a rock album, and Ronroco (1998), an instrumental album showcasing ronroco and charango, stringed instruments of the lute family traditionally made with the shell of an armadillo. A peculiar album -- it isn't particularly Andean-sounding -- Ronroco nevertheless attracted producer/director Michael Mann, who approached Santaolalla with a request to use the song "Iguazu" in The Insider (1999), a film starring Russell Crowe. The song is featured prominently during a turning point in the film where there is no dialogue.
The door to Hollywood was now opened, and Santaolalla found himself fielding a series of soundtrack opportunities. First came Amores Perros (2000), released as a two-CD soundtrack for the Alejandro González Iñárritu film of the same name. The soundtrack featured original music by Santaolalla as featured in the film, and it also featured newly recorded songs from major Latin acts such as Julieta Venegas, Café Tacuba, Control Machete, Illya Kuryaki & the Valderramas, and Ely Guerra. Both the film and the soundtrack were widely praised, and a few years later, Santaolalla composed the soundtrack for Iñárritu's next film, 21 Grams (2003). After being introduced to Brazilian director Walter Salles by Iñárritu, Santaolalla was invited to compose the soundtrack for The Motorcycle Diaries (2004). This score won him the BAFTA Award (British Academy Award) in February 2005 and set the stage for his Golden Globe and Oscar wins shortly afterward for Brokeback Mountain (2005).
Santaolalla got the job thanks to another chance meeting, this time with Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee. Upon reading the script for the film, as well as the short story by Annie Proulx, upon which the film was based, Santaolalla composed the soundtrack before the movie was even shot, a rare practice in Hollywood. Lee was actually able to study the soundtrack beforehand, keeping it in mind as he went about scouting locations for Brokeback Mountain. The movie was as controversial as it was acclaimed when it opened in late 2005, and the buzz surrounding it garnered Santaolalla a lot of media attention, all the more so when he won a Golden Globe for "A Love That Will Never Grow Old," an original song of his performed by Emmylou Harris and co-written by Bernie Taupin, Elton John's longtime lyricist. An Oscar followed, this time for Best Score. The Academy Award complemented his 2005 Latin Grammy Award from the prior year, which he'd won for Producer of the Year.
Now with an Oscar to his name, in addition to several Grammys, Santaolalla kept working unabated. His score for Iñárritu's third film in a row, Babel (2006), is particularly noteworthy: to give the film an authentic Middle Eastern atmosphere, Santaolalla learned to play the oud, an Arab lute. This score, too, earned him an Oscar. Also notable is Café de los Maestros (2005), a kind of tango version of Buena Vista Social Club. Santaolalla used his clout to unite a who's-who of Argentine tango legends for the documentary project, including musicians and singers such as Emilio Balcarce, Carlos Garcia, Atilio Stampone, Jose Libertella, Osvaldo Berlingieri, Horacio Salgan, Leopoldo Federico, Virginia Luque, Lágrima Ríos, Alberto Podesta, Juan Carlos Godoy, Osvaldo Requena, Fernando Suarez Paz, Emilio de la Peña, Oscar Ferrari, Nelly Omar, Ubaldo de Lio, and Mariano Mores -- none of whom was under age 70. Moreover, all participants in the project performed at Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires on August 24, 2006, sans Libertella and Garcia, who had died in the meantime. Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) directed the film aspect of the documentary, and Santaolalla released a two-volume CD, Café de los Maestros, which won the 2006 Latin Grammy for Best Tango Album.
The acclaim brought by Santaolalla's back-to-back Oscar wins meant the film score commissions started to pour in. During the next six years, he either scored or wrote songs for no fewer than eight new films, notably working again with both Iñárritu -- on his Babel follow-up Biutiful (2010) -- and Salles, who directed the long-gestating adaptation of Kerouac's On the Road. In 2013, he scored his first video game, the highly acclaimed, cutting-edge survival horror title The Last of Us.
In 2014, Santaolalla collaborated with songwriter Paul Williams on a theatrical musical based on Guillermo del Toro's film Pan's Labyrinth, as well as the animated feature film The Book of Life (also produced by the director). He also worked on the music for Arrabal -- a theatrical presentation about a young girl in Buenos Aires in the '90s, during the aftermath of the military regime that ended with 30,000 people “disappearing” during the '70s. He also continued to tour globally with his tango fusion collective Bajofondo, as well as giving talks and teaching master classes. In July, Santaolalla released a new solo instrumental album entitled Camino through Sony Music Masterworks. In 2015, he was inducted into the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame and provided the score for the soundtrack to the Netflix-exclusive documentary series, Making a Murderer. He returned in 2016 with a number of compositions on the collaborative soundtrack for Fisher Stevens and Leonardo DiCaprio's documentary about the impact of climate change, Before the Flood, and released the album Qhapaq Ñan: Desandando el Camino. His full band recording Raconto, as well as scores to the films Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars and To End a War, and Thierry Klifa's Tout Nous Sépare all appeared the following year; Santaolalla and his band also undertook a world tour. In 2019, the video game soundtrack The Last of Us, Vol. 2 was released globally to universal acclaim. ~ Jason Birchmeier, Rovi