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The Maestro And The Liberator: Gustavo Dudamel's Cinematic Debut

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor of the LA Philharmonic since 2009, composed the score for the new Simón Bolívar biopic The Liberator. (Courtesy of the artist)

A film opened in the U.S. this weekend about the life of Simón Bolivar, the military leader who helped free much of Latin America from the Spanish Empire. Libertador, or The Liberator, tells that story with the help of rousing music by a first-time film-score composer: Gustavo Dudamel.

Yes, that's the same Gustavo Dudamel you may have seen throwing about his wild shock of hair as the spirited conductor of the LA Philharmonic. He and the film's director, Alberto Arvelo, go way back to their days growing up in Venezuela, and that's where they first developed an appreciation for the film's central character.

"We studied Bolivar in school. We read his letters, his most important speeches, and of course, in every main square in Venezuela we have a Simon Bolivar statue," Dudamel says. "But to understand from where he came, to arrive to the point to liberate all these countries in South America is so interesting."

Dudamel says that when Arvelo first approached him about working on the film years ago, he offered him a more supervisory role in the project.

"He told me, 'You will be my adviser — musical adviser,'" Dudamel says. "And I was giving him many examples. Then, at a point, I played for Alberto some things [on the piano]. And he told me, 'I'm sorry, my friend, but you became the composer of this film.'"

Dudamel spoke with NPR's Arun Rath backstage at the Hollywood Bowl, just after rehearsing the full score for its debut performance. Hear more of their conversation, including how Dudamel funneled ethnic sounds and the influence of Aaron Copland into his music, at the audio link.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's been called the South American "Braveheart" - a film that opened in the U.S. this weekend about the life of Simon Bolivar, the military leader who helped free much of Latin America from the Spanish Empire. It's called "Libertador" or "The Liberator."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LIBERTADOR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Speaking Spanish).

RATH: The continent is waiting for a flood, he says, a flood that inundates it with liberty.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LIBERTADOR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Speaking Spanish).

RATH: The flood starts today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE LIBERATOR")

RATH: That rousing music was written by a first-time film score composer, Gustavo Dudamel, the same Gustavo Dudamel you might have seen whipping around his wild shock of hair as the spirited conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic. I spoke with him while he was backstage just after a rehearsal at the Hollywood Bowl. Gustavo Dudamel and the film's director, Alberto Arvelo, go way back to their days growing up in Venezuela. That's where they first developed an appreciation for "El Libertador."

GUSTAVO DUDAMEL: We studied Bolivar in the school, you know. We read, you know, his letters, his most important speeches. And, of course, in every main square in Venezuela, we have a Simon Bolivar statue that, of course, is around our life. But to understand from where he came to arrive to the point to liberate all these countries in South America is so interesting. And I think that for me was in a way a discovery. With the movie I learned a lot.

RATH: I read that originally, you were a musical advisor to the film.

DUDAMEL: Exactly. Exactly.

RATH: But you made the jump at some point to writing the score. How did that happen?

DUDAMEL: No, well, look - I have a very close relation with Alberto Arvelo, the director. He was part of El Sistema, you know, the musical program that we have in Venezuela.

RATH: That's youth music program you were very involved.

DUDAMEL: Yes, he was playing the cello. We create this kind of very special relation. We are like brothers. And, you know, he told me about the movie many years before. I think almost four, five years before he started. And he told me you will be my advisor - musical advisor. And I was giving him many examples.

Then in a point I played for Alberto some things. And he told me I'm sorry my friend, but you became the composer of this film. And I was like no, Alberto, I'm giving only examples to you. I'm not - I'm not a composer, you know. I'm not used to it. And he told me no, start to do. And well, here we are.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LIBERATOR")

RATH: Let's talk about this music. I mean, I've got to imagine it's a heavy weight on you to write music for a figure like that. What was the kind of feeling you were going for?

DUDAMEL: I - my approach was in a very simple way - really simple - something like, you know, more atmospheric. For example, in a battle scene, I didn't use an orchestra for complete doing things. I use sometimes a children choir, you know, singing on the top of that, you know, of the actual song. So you have this kind of contrast.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LIBERATOR")

RATH: I'm speaking with L.A. Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel. He's composed the score for the new film "Libertador" - "The Liberator." Bolivar's liberation movement was - it was kind of a transnational thing. People came from all over the world to fight alongside him.

DUDAMEL: Yes.

RATH: Is that spirit reflected in the music?

DUDAMEL: Yes. I think yes. It's very epic. I was very inspired in a way from Copland.

RATH: Aaron Copland.

DUDAMEL: Yeah. The "Fanfare For The Common Man," you know - da da da, da da da.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FANFARE FOR THE COMMON MAN")

DUDAMEL: And for me - was like kind of a key for me to describe the character of Bolivar. Bolivar was a common man that became a hero - became a liberator of many countries. And from that for me was like kind of wow, this is the kind of things that I will love to get inspired from - this motif to go and to create this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LIBERATOR")

DUDAMEL: And I was trying to use some ethnic elements. I have this wonderful friend, Pedro Eustache - that he was playing all the ethnic flutes. That was a kind of element to pay homage to the people before the Spanish conqueror, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

RATH: You know, I've got a feeling that now other film directors are going to be calling you up and saying Gustavo -

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: - I've got this great film. Can you write something for me? What are you going to tell them?

DUDAMEL: (Laughter) Well, never say never. I don't know. If I have - if I have the right - let's say, the right conditions in the sense of do I have the time. Because you need the quality of time to do the things. You cannot be, you know, crazy. And I think if I can have the quality of time to repeat this experience again - look, I will do, because I love it. And if this happened, I will be happy. And if not, also I will be happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LIBERATOR")

RATH: That's Gustavo Dudamel. His day job is conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Now he's also a film score composer. His first is for the move "The Liberator," which opened in the States this weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LIBERATOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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