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Cartel Land by H. Scott Salinas & Jackson Greenberg (Review)

posted Jul 20, 2015, 4:07 PM by Kaya Savas

Cartel Land is the intense documentary that takes you the frontline of the war on drugs. It follows one American and one Mexican on each side of the border who decide to take up arms and fight the drug cartel themselves. It’s an examination of vigilanteism and exposing a situation, and is so much more complex than it seems on the outside. The chilling and textural score is by H. Scott Salinas and Jackson Greenberg. These two young composers don't have a history of working together so I’m not entirely sure of the nature of their collaboration. But I can say this is one of the most effective documentary scores I’ve heard recently.

Documentaries usually require a different scoring approach because they usually have sit down interviews cut with footage. The music can't call too much attention to itself either. Cartel Land is a bit different in that this is truly more of an observational documentary. The camera is just there capturing life, and the audience is there to experience it as it happens versus having people tell their own stories of the past. The score therefore acts very much like a traditional fictional score. The meshing of trickling guitar with electronic textures and strings really made it feel like a mesh of Harry Gregson-Williams and Gustavo Santaolalla. I mean, there are some serious dramatic builds here. The score sends chills and evokes a sense of absolute dread at times, while still having this echo of humanity and life pulsing through it. Many people talk about how tense and relentless the documentary is, and it’s because of this score. The music is so on point and is never afraid to just score the hell out of it. The music doesn't tiptoe around emotions, it doesn’t treat the subject matter delicately. The music says “here it is, this is what humans are doing to each other, look at it”. There are anchoring motifs that carry this score all the way through and by the end you feel a bit emotionally drained as well.

Cartel Land shows you really can do a lot with very little. With a focused soundscape and emotional precision that doesn’t pull any punches, the music feels more like a fictional narrative than a documentary score. These two young composers have done some amazingly subtle yet moving work here. I think there is a great deal of promise here with these two talents as they don’t only present a style, but they know narrative and emotional substance as well. These days many people can make music or shoot video, but not many people can tell stories through their preferred medium. Salinas and Greenberg are clearly storytellers.