'Mateo': Film Review

Promising oddball music doc fails to make sense of its subject

Aaron I. Naar introduces the pale but persistent "Gringo Mariachi"

NEW YORK — A hazy portrait of an odd character whose backstory offers multiple attention-getting hooks, Aaron I. Naar's Mateo introduces Matthew Stoneman, a New Hampshire-raised white man now earning a living on Los Angeles streets as a mariachi. The meek man's transformation into "The Gringo Mariachi" is more than a mere culture-clash tale, and in the hands of a savvy documentarian, this might have been a nonfiction breakthrough. But first-timer Naar both fails to convince us of his subject's musical genius and gives the impression he's leaving out important details; the resulting picture has little potential beyond the fest circuit.

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After showing Stoneman hustling for party gigs and chatting up his nonplussed Latino competitors, Naar explains that Stoneman acquired his taste for Mexican ballads in prison — a lifelong aspiring musician, he had stolen a half-million dollars' worth of recording gear in an attempt to keep his career afloat.

These days, he lives hand-to-mouth in L.A. and squirrels away his pay to finance a second life in Cuba. There, we see him arrange sessions with esteemed session musicians for what he hopes will be a magnum opus: Una Historia de Cuba, a ballad-heavy album he eventually completes after spending seven years and $350,000 on its making.

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Can Stoneman really have earned that kind of money legally? The film never addresses the obvious question. And despite the more than ample time it watches him in Cuba, where he has a creepy fixation on prostitutes, it never makes sense of his relationship to friends, colleagues and lovers there.

It comes closest to success in its account of this musical dream project, but many fans of Latin music will be unconvinced of that effort's merit: Stoneman is not a great singer, though his gentle voice is sometimes lovely; and while his compositions would play well in American coffee shops, it's unclear how many of the Cuban vets who play on the record would be praising them if he weren't so generous with U.S. currency. Closing scenes find him in the unlikely position of being a temporary star in Japan, where a record label has fallen in love with his album and arranged for sold-out concerts. Again, the whys and hows are unclear.

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Production Companies: Andrew Lauren Productions, CoPilot Pictures
Director: Aaron I. Naar
Producers: Benjamin Dohrmann, Aaron I. Naar
Executive producers: Andrew Lauren, Adam Schlesinger, Louis Venezia
Directors of photography: Seth Cuddeback, Aaron I. Naar
Editors: Aaron I. Naar, Nicole Vaskell
Music: Matthew Stoneman
No rating, 89 minutes