“Rompan Todo”: The Story of Rock in Latin America as Told by Major Labels

A few weeks ago I was thrilled to get the news that Netflix was about to release Rompan Todo: The history of rock music in Latin America. My mind was blown while watching Netflix’ “Hip Hop Evolution” documentary, so if this new one was going to be anything like that, I knew it was going to be a great treat to close this challenging year. However, things didn’t go as expected.

As soon as the film hit the web my Twitter and Facebook timelines started to fill up with friends ranting about how the project had left behind many important artists. 

I realized that despite being a very enjoyable series that provides an excuse to find out more about Latin American rock history, the documentary focuses mostly on the most commercially successful artists released by major labels in the region, specifically those produced by Gustavo Santaolalla. Thus, the project misses the opportunity to shed light and put into context some of LatAm rock’s most relevant underground heroes. As a result, Rompan Todo leaves a strange aftertaste that suggests it was created not so much to help us understand the history of rock in Latin America, but to serve as a marketing tool to boost the labels’ back catalogue sales.

From Los Teen Tops & Los Gatos to Bersuit and Molotov 

The documentary begins in 1960’s Mexico, where local bands such as Los Rebeldes del Rock and Los Teen Tops put Spanish speaking lyrics to rock and roll coming from the U.S. 

These discs then have great success in Argentina where they spark the appearance of local bands that go beyond covers and start to create their own original rock songs such as The Shakers, Los Gatos and La Joven Guardia

As the 60’s turned into the 70’s, this scene became very effervescent (leading to the appearances of bands like Spinetta, Santaolalla and Charly García) and followed by the youth until it was severely censored by the military dictatorship in 1976. This censorship process would happen in a similar way in Mexico and Chile where Festival Avandaro in 1971 and the beginning of Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1972 are the starting points of the severe limitations for the scene where bands such as El Tri and los Prisioneros were thriving.

Once the military dictatorship ended in 1983, Argentinian artists had a unique opportunity to take their music to other countries in the region. Supported by Sony Music, Soda Estereo took that role as the first LatAm rock superstar embracing New Wave influences. 

Soda’s success made big labels realize the commercial potential of Spanish speaking rock and thus in the late 80’s BMG Ariola launched the “Rock En Tu Idioma” series with compilations that showcased rock bands singing in Spanish from LatAm and Spain.

The series makes a zoom into the role of Gustavo Santaolalla as the producer behind the most iconic albums of some of the bands that came out of the “Rock En Tu Idioma” era such as La Maldita Vecindad’s “Circo” and Café Tacuva’s “Re”. These blueprints on how to fuse LatAm street and folk culture into rock would then spread throughout the continent thanks to the launch of MTV Latino in 1991.

After checking in on iconic bands from the MTV Latino generation such as Aterciopelados and Tijuana No!, Rompan Todo zooms back to Gustavo Santaolalla’s role on the production of albums that became the soundtrack of Latin America’s complaints on the failures of their political and economical systems as the 2000’s came closer. These are Molotov’s “Dónde Jugarán Las Niñas” and Bersuit Vergarabat’s “Libertinaje”

Then it all closes on a quick checklist of newer artists that are influenced by electronics, hip hop, regional influences such as Nortec, Bajofondo Tango Club and Calle 13; and a quote of female performers such as Julieta Venegas and Mon Laferte. This is wrapped by a quick homage to the passing away of Gustavo Cerati and Gustavo Santaolalla saying that rock music is currently “hibernating” – waiting to come back with strength.

Even if you don’t like it, the documentary helps to steer the discussion towards Latin American rock 

Despite all of its areas for improvement, Rompan Todo has two solid achievements. Firstly, it is quite an enjoyable series. It has a dynamic flow that lets casual audiences see and listen to a lot of footage, music and interviews of many of the most followed rock artists from Latin America. Secondly, even if the series has many gaps to fill and its narrative could be better delivered, it does open up the conversation around Latin American Rock, a field of study that certainly needs more research and diffusion. Additionally, many people will find pieces of information that will help them discover new music and put into context some of the bands they already know about.

It was supposed to be a documentary about the history of rock in Latin America, but at times it seems as a victory lap for Gustavo Santaolalla’s career as a producer

As the writer David Miklos points out, Rompan Todo has a problem in its narrative. It is not clear if it is a history of rock in Latin America or a review of Gustavo Santaolalla’s career as a producer.  

During the first two episodes it seems as if the project is trying to present rock and roll as a youth expression in response to the establishment. However, as the series moves forward, it starts to concentrate more and more on the role of Gustavo Santaolalla as a producer of these very successful artists, paying less attention to how each of them are connected other than because they are friends with him.

By the time the series reaches the last episode it features artists such as Nortec and Calle 13 in a “checklist” way without a proper comment on how their musical influences relate to rock or how they connect with each other. The same is felt with the inclusion of a shortlist of female rock artists that tries to comply with a gender quota instead of putting a proper narrative to why each of them was included. 

It is important to note that Gustavo Santaolalla is one of the series’ executive producers. So that is probably the reason why all of the people interviewed are closely related to him. However, if Netflix was going to produce a documentary that is heavily anchored around his productions then it might have been much more coherent and interesting to go ahead and do a full-on Gustavo Santaolalla as a “super-producer” documentary instead. 

Rompan Todo misses the opportunity to comment on underground scenes and key foreign influences 

As the rock critic Sr. Gonzáles mentions, the biggest problem of Rompan Todo is that it presents a story of rock that is narrated from the perspective of big labels and those artists signed to them, making almost invisible all of the work done within the independent scenes.

Throughout the episodes the series makes many efforts to position Latin American rock as a response to socio-political events. However, this argument doesn’t hold up too strongly because the story is narrated by a timeline that focuses only on the most commercially successful albums of the continent. Also, this is reinforced by the fact that socio-political events are commented on many occasions by artists coming from privileged backgrounds that have little connection with subcultures, such as Fernando Olvera from Maná or Leonardo de Lozanne from Fobia. 

By doing so, Rompan Todo fails to properly comment on important processes that are key to the development of rock in Latin America. Examples of this within the Mexican scene include lack of mentions to the Rock Urbano and Ska scenes, or deep insights on the role of indie labels such as Comrock or Discos Denver. Other omissions include Ritmo Peligroso’s influence on the works of Maldita Vecindad and Café Tacvba, or the role bands such as Size and Chac Mool play in introducing Punk, New Wave and Post Punk within the Mexican rock scene. To a certain extent, Rompan Todo suggests that Charly García and Soda Estéreo were the two main influences that defined the late 80’s sound of the Mexican rock scene, while this extends much more throughout the local independent scenes. 

Within the Argentinean Rock scene, a similar process is reflected by the way in which artists such as Fabulosos Cadillacs and Patricio Rey y Los Redonditos de Ricota are treated. The quick “checklist” type of coverage they receive makes it seem as if they were included in the episodes just to prevent any criticism of leaving out such important artists.

Roberto Ponce from Proceso magazine mentions that another big problem of the series is that its vision is too “chauvinistic”, i.e. self contained to Argentina and Mexico’s scenes. Rompan Todo begins telling the story on how U.S. and later British rock adapted to Latin American realities in the 50’s and 60’s. However, as the series moves forwards in time it skips to comment on other foreign artists and movements that influenced important sound changes in LatAm’s rock scene. 

One example of this is that throughout the episodes there is no mention whatsoever about Brazilian rock. This is surprising considering that some of the most iconic artists from Argentina, such as Charly García spent long periods of time during exile in that country. Actually, Charly García’s Seru Girán has a song called “Tropicalia”, so there must be a connection to explore with the musical movement of the same name promoted by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil.

Another example is that although Rompan Todo includes a couple of Spanish groups such as Radio Futura and Toreros Muertos, it doesn’t mention at all the very influential La Movida Madrileña, the thriving rock scene that appeared in Spain as a result of the end of Franco’s dictatorship. 

In this same way, the influence of foreign characters within the local scenes is also minimized throughout the series. As Miklos mentions, this is evident with the way British foreigners Illy Bleeding from Mexican band Size and Luca Prodan from Argentinian band Sumo are treated in the documentary. The first goes completely unmentioned, while the second one is reduced to a “band that sang in English”, bypassing the way they introduced new influences on local scenes and the fact that many of Sumo’s songs had Spanish lyrics.

This disconnection with the underground and key foreign influences is maybe the reason why Rompan Todo doesn’t go much beyond the 2000’s and Gustavo Santaolalla closes the series saying that rock music in Latin America is “hibernating”. It might be true that it’s been a while since Latin rock music topped the charts or completely dominated MTV, however, the genre has never stopped to be a very powerful force that has both an ever evolving underground scene and bands with large followings. Two quick examples taken from the Mexican experience can be seen in the large amount of new rock music posted every week at sites such as nofm-radio.com or Ultramarinos.co, the appearance of surprising bands such as Los Cogelones or the fact that new rock acts such as Little Jesus or Camilo Septimo pack big theatres consistently.

All of the omissions mentioned give us hints to think that maybe the team behind putting together the series wasn’t interested too much in doing an in depth analysis of rock music in Latin America at all. This is reinforced by a recent interview by one of the historical consultants of the series, rock critic Enrique Blanc. In his statements to OnCuba he mentions that he wasn’t asked to do a specific analysis for the production of Rompan Todo. Instead, he only provided the production team some of his past texts and made some remarks to the first versions of the scripts of the episodes.

Additionally, recent reviews of the series also point out that the selection of songs included in the story favored those linked to Sony Music’s catalogue, even when it meant sacrificing the inclusion of relevant songs or artists. Citing Miklos once more, we see how Rompan Todo includes the appearance of Armando Suárez from Chac Mool but it doesn’t include any references to the bands’ album Caricia Digital, which was an important milestone to introduce New Wave into the Mexican Scene. Miklos comments that this album was probably left out of the story because it was published by Warner, not Sony Music or any of its subsidiaries.

Additionally, José Xavier Navar from El Universal mentions that the launch of the series coincides with the publications of some re-editions of back catalogue albums, such as four albums from Los Dug Dug’s, a band featured in the film. Thus, he suggests that the purpose of Rompan Todo is greatly linked to big labels’ interest and not so much to being an honest coverage of rock music in Latin America. 

As Cherie Hu mentions in her Water & Music platform, in the past years big labels have been working closer together with streaming platforms to offer documentaries on the biggest selling artists. This is part of a dual marketing strategy that helps both platforms to increase subscribers while it aids to boost back-catalogue sales for labels. I think this resonates greatly with the way Rompan Todo delivers its vision on the history of rock in Latin America.

To conclude, we can say that all of the above makes us have a better understanding on why the series has received so much backlash from Latin rock communities. A blockbuster rock documentary on a mainstream platform such as Netflix is a great opportunity to develop new narratives and shed light on some of the unsung heroes of these scenes. However, Rompan Todo tells a story that has the effect of invisibilizing important underground artists as a result of the way the big label backing of the project is trying to maximize its revenues. Either way, if you’re interested in learning a general look at LatAm’s Rock history, it’s not a bad start.