Aside from Ken Burns or Steve James or Alex Gibney, or maybe Liz Garbus, very few documentarians get to name their formal terms. They make a feature or something longer based on what the marketplace demands or, more frequently, based on limitations of money or access.
So it isn’t like Sam Osborn and Alejandra Vasquez, directors of Going Varsity in Mariachi, necessarily looked at their available footage and said, “Sure, we know this is really best-served being a TV series, but nah.” They told the story they could tell and if Going Varsity in Mariachi is one of those movies that’s good at 104 minutes, but could have been spectacular at eight hours, that’s unfortunately just the state of the business sometimes. And Going Varsity in Mariachi is quite good as it is, an endearingly wholesome and frequently vibrant feature. But almost every one of my reservations boils down to, “Needed more [insert lack here].”
Going Varsity in Mariachi
The Bottom Line
Joyfully wholesome, but lacking depth and context.
The documentary begins with the assertion that in Texas, over 100 public high schools have competitive mariachi teams. The best of the teams come from the Rio Grande Valley, with our primary focus on Edinburg North High School’s Mariachi Oro.
Coached by Abel Acuña, Mariachi Oro has traditionally been in the upper tier of mariachi teams but as the first day of school 2021 looms, it’s a team in transition. They have an inexperienced strings section, trumpeters with a reputation as goof-offs and a guitarrón player who only took up the instrument a few weeks earlier.
The documentary follows Mariachi Oro through the school year, from earlier rehearsals to preliminary events to state-level competitions. Along the way, we get to know Acuña, a mariachi devotee single-handedly performing tasks that might be distributed among four or five people at schools with more resources. We spend time with some of the students, including violinist Abby, in need of scholarships to fulfill her dream of going to college away from home; versatile guitarist Marlena, in a new relationship with popular singer Mariah; and violinist Bella, whose sisters are hoping to follow in her footsteps.
Osborn and Vasquez stick to a very basic chronology — we’re constantly getting updates on how long until the next competition — and they cover the basics extremely well. Key mariachi standards are given on-screen identification and, thanks to Acuña’s personal devotion, viewers and the students get to learn the names of several key historical figures in the genre.
What we don’t get is a very clear illustration of how competition mariachi works. There are references to a scoring system, but when the actual events roll around, it’s very difficult to parse which teams are doing better or worse within that system, which stifles the documentary’s momentum. The team gets better as the documentary progresses, but I couldn’t begin to tell you if they actually get good. And although we get glimpses of at least two other teams and meet their coaches, it isn’t enough for viewers to develop any real ability to compare.
At times the music is just spirited background noise and the documentary is being carried by its featured “characters,” who are so instantly endearing and have such immediately compelling stories that I’d have happily spent hours with them. The relationship between Marlena and Mariah is responsible for two or three of the documentary’s highlights and brings a sweetness that nearly pervades the entire film, even if those two or three scenes are basically all you get. Drake’s struggles, both with his new musical instrument and with a new girlfriend who distracts him from his mariachi commitment, include mistakes that are easy to empathize with. Abby’s eagerness to put some distance even from a family she loves is completely relatable.
Even with the main characters, long stretches pass when their individual narratives take a backseat to slightly perfunctory preparation montages, and it’s hard not to be aware that important parts of the Mariachi Oro ensemble, including the alleged goof-offs in the brass section, are nearly absent. Given the opportunity to expand to a full season, there’s the opportunity for something akin to America to Me or Last Chance U, with twice the number of spotlight students, more opportunities to flesh out arcs for the kids we know we like, and maybe the chance to give details and personalities to the rival programs and their different approaches to mariachi.
There’s so much context that Going Varsity in Mariachi feels like it could add. Edinburg never emerges as a character, leaving no feeling for the region on a socioeconomic or sociopolitical level, with its close proximity to the border. So when Acuña gets texts from the local chief of police, there’s insufficient background to know if that’s ominous or encouraging. Presumably because of access restrictions, there’s no sense of Edinburg North as a high-school community either. So when Mariachi Oro is struggling to find resources, there’s insufficient background to know how the team is viewed within the school system and where the resources are going.
So my complaints are all, “Gimme more” irritations. Watch Going Varsity in Mariachi for the joyful music and endearing kids. Maybe if it’s a hit, Osborn and Vasquez can revisit it as the series it was always meant to be.
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‘Going Varsity in Mariachi’ Review: A Good Doc Feature That Might Have Made a Great Doc Series
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