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A Dog, a Few Jams, and Beck: The ‘Roma’ Album Is a Strange Companion Piece to One of the Year’s Best Films

The compilation—which also features the likes of Patti Smith, Billie Eilish, and El-P—is a not-entirely-convincing product that stretches the “inspired by” concept to its limits

Netflix/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It will please you to learn that the dog from Roma now has his own theme song. “Cumbia del Borras,” a shaggy and infectiously bumptious jam from the Mexico City collective Sonido Gallo Negro, confers great honor upon the titular Borras, a hard-living rescue dog cast in Roma because he looks exactly like director Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood dog of that name. The song includes interspersed audio from the film, with Borras’s own lively barks mingling with lovingly exasperated cries of “Borras! Borras!” from Roma’s heroine, Cleo, the resilient nanny, played by Yalitza Aparicio, who serves as the film’s emotional linchpin and Borras’s de facto caretaker. And as rowdy cumbias go, it makes for a fine consolation prize.

Aparicio, you see, received an Oscar nomination for her star-making role in Roma, whereas Borras did not. This snub was not unsurprising. As 2019 Oscar dogs go, Borras could not hope to match the pathos and profundity of Charlie, Bradley Cooper’s real-life dog and the true star of A Star Is Born, who over the course of that film navigates much higher highs (the steak) and lower lows (the thing after the steak).

Whereas Borras spends much of his runtime in Roma either playfully leaping at the garage door or, well, pooping. (Offscreen, mercifully.) You will recall that Roma features just implausibly enormous quantities of dog poop, befouling large portions of that garage and constantly squishing underfoot (or under-tire) in a testament to Borras’s vivacity and regularity. “Cumbia del Borras,” which (mercifully) features no poop-squishing sound effects, is a good song that commemorates a good dog. Not the best dog; certainly not an ideal dog-sitting assignment. But a good dog nonetheless.

“Cumbia del Borras” is likewise not the best song on Music Inspired by the Film Roma, a strange new compilation, out on Friday and streaming via NPR now, that also features the likes of Beck, Patti Smith, DJ Shadow, El-P, Quique Rangel from Mexican art-rock veterans Café Tacvba, the young Parisian duo Ibeyi, the Israeli singer Asaf Avidan, and the L.A.-born teenage pop sensation Billie Eilish. But it might be the one track that best exemplifies the whole “music inspired by” concept; it’s one of the rare moments when you understand exactly what you’re listening to.

What is strange about this album, first of all, is that Roma, the film, hit Netflix in mid-December after a brief theatrical run; almost all movie soundtracks are released alongside their movies or immediately beforehand, as with Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy- and Oscar-nominated Black Panther soundtrack, which dropped a few notable tunes into Black Panther itself but serves mostly as a dense and rewarding offscreen rumination upon it. Indeed, Roma already has its own official soundtrack true to the movie’s setting in 1970s Mexico City. No song on this new album actually appears in the film, unless you count the 1968 nostalgia-bomb pop standard “Those Were the Days,” covered in the film by Ray Conniff and the Singers and remade once again here by the splendidly acidic English folk singer Laura Marling, who is always a pleasure to hear from no matter how disjointed the context.

Otherwise, this new album collects a motley crew of aggressively various artists, spanning generations and continents alike, ostensibly united only by the fact they really, really loved this movie and wanted to write a song about it. The resulting comp is not entirely convincing, and veers wildly from a labor of love to a labor of marketing.

Eilish did the best job of selling the best version of this idea. She announced her song, “When I Was Older,” in early January via a very brief post on her bonkers-popular Instagram account, effectively creating the impression that she just so happened to catch Roma on Netflix one night, and then caught the holy spirit immediately thereafter. The song’s title quotes Pepe, who in the film is the youngest boy in Cleo’s care, and who tends to ramble on in an eerily adorable way about his past lives just before something super-intense happens. And the song itself is a moody, droning smear of deep bass and Eilish’s sad-robot vocal harmonies that doesn’t fit the movie musically at all, and yet fits the emotional tenor of the movie perfectly.

Much of the rest of Music Inspired by the Film Roma is far more disjointed, the inspiration far less clear. Beck’s “Tarantula” is a cover of an early single from the mid-’80s U.K. electronic-pop group Colourbox; his version is lush and orchestral and slow-drip profound in the vein of his Grammy-winning 2014 album Morning Phase, but its connection to Roma is vague at best. Likewise Patti Smith’s “Wing,” a re-recorded version of a track on her 1996 album Gone Again, the update heavy on the reverb and gravitas, the lyrics altered slightly to make them less specific, not more. (She is imagining herself as a bird, as Patti does; the line “Soared over Spain” is now “Soared in the rain.”) I assume both Beck and Smith could sit you down and explain exactly why these songs are perfect for this movie, but until they actually do that, you’re stuck with the assumption.

A bigger problem is that the songs here that do conspicuously fit the theme tend to be worse than the ones that don’t. Ibeyi’s “Cleo Who Takes Care of You” is very sweet and empathetic but awfully literal; “Psycho,” an Eilish-esque electro-pop jam from Bu Cuarôn, Alfonso’s own teenage daughter, is an angry character study with an anger disproportionate to the character.

It starts by sampling the Roma scene when Sofia (a likewise Oscar-nominated Marina de Tavira), the embattled and abandoned mother of the family, catches one of her sons eavesdropping, slaps him, immediately apologizes, then turns her anger on Cleo instead. But the rest of the song, from the chorus on down—“You’re a psycho / Hit me but you love me / And never say you’re sorry”—is a much harsher read on Sofia than the rest of the movie’s. There might be another whole movie hiding in that gap.

The album is bookended by quick sound collages of Mexico City ambiance—the overlapping voices, the planes soaring overhead, the occasional marching band—that makes Roma such a striking auditory experience even without the pop-star majesty that drives Bohemian Rhapsody or A Star Is Born. Asaf Avidan’s “Between These Hands,” a quavering hyper-ballad that’s not much fun to listen to but is certainly appropriate for an occasionally wrenching movie, samples the macho grunts from the outdoor martial arts class Cleo visits midway through the movie, a sumptuous but eventually wrenching scene all on its own. Music Inspired by the Film Roma is most comfortable when those inspirations are piecemeal and incidental: It stumbles when the connection is either too explicit or not explicit enough. It’s an intriguing idea, to get random people to watch a movie and then free-associate a song in response, and I’d love to see this concept applied to, say, Venom. As for this Roma album, the barking dogs resonate on a deeper level than most of the emoting people.