In the Academy Awards’ 90 years, a foreign-language film has yet to take home the Oscar for best picture. But come Feb. 24, when the 91st ceremony will take place, that could change, thanks to Roma. The movie, Alfonso Cuarón’s reconstruction of the early-1970s Mexico City of his youth, nabbed best foreign-language film at the Jan. 6 Golden Globe Awards, and he won best director. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has also shortlisted it in the best foreign-language film category. (Nominations will be revealed Jan. 22.)
The black-and-white movie, in Spanish and Mixtec (the dialogue spoken by native peoples of southern Mexico), was distributed by Netflix, where it is currently streaming after a limited theatrical debut. Its plot documents a pivotal year in the lives of the two main characters: Sofia (Marina de Tavira), the mother of four children, and the family’s housekeeper-nanny Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young woman of indigenous descent.
To immerse audience members in their world, Cuarón enlisted music supervisor Lynn Fainchtein (Birdman, The Butler), a Mexico City native who sourced the 38 snippets and full songs heard throughout the film. “There is nothing by accident,” she says of the soundtrack, which features pop and rock hits including a Spanish version of The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun.” “Nothing that doesn’t have meaning. In Mexico, our memories are always linked to songs.”
In addition to relying on her and Cuarón’s memories, Fainchtein did extensive research on what songs received radio airplay in 1970 and 1971. Music in Roma most often comes from the ever-present radio, an all-access medium of symbolic importance in a film that highlights class inequality. Cleo is accompanied by the music of Spanish singer Rocío Dúrcal as she works in the kitchen; British band Christie’s 1970 hit “Yellow River” plays in the family car. The cast album of Jesus Christ Superstar spins during a gathering at a hacienda, while the domestic workers dance to a regional Mexican band during their own celebration.
“Music reveals a lot about a society,” says Cuarón. “In Roma, the music shows a Mexico with pretensions of modernity, but still clinging to its past.”