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Deep in the Heart of Tex-Mex

Les Blank's roots music docs border on the magnificent.

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The East Bay's own Les Blank (1935-2013) was not only a legendary second-unit cinematographer (he shot the infamous cemetery-acid-trip scene in Easy Rider), but more importantly one of this country's finest filmic chroniclers of roots music and its colorful practitioners. Two of Blank's earliest and most influential documentaries, Chulas Fronteras (1976) and Del Mero Corazón (co-directed with Maureen Gosling, 1979), have been restored and digitally remastered, and are being presented this week in theaters not far from Blank's original El Cerrito headquarters.

Chulas Fronteras takes us to the Texas-Mexico borderlands in those idyllic days when irrational xenophobia was at a minimum, and good food and Tex-Mex musica norteña seemed to grow on vines between San Antonio and Matamoros. We soak up the tunes of accordionist Santiago Jiménez and his son Flaco Jiménez, Narciso Martínez, Los Alegres de Terán, Ramiro Cavazos and Conjunto Tamaulipas, and learn about the fabulous Hermanas Mendoza. It's a romantic portrait of the border, and despite the farm labor issues, a place better defined by barbacoa, large families, and some of the most rousing acoustic dance music on the planet.

Del Mero Corazón, subtitled "Love Songs of the Southwest," revisits the same territory for backyard cookouts a la parrilla, laced with songs of passion on guitar, accordion, and vocals that "blend European and indigenous ways and feelings" — alongside drive-by footage of pink and purple houses and cantinas like Los Bohemios Cabaret, El Infierno Bar, and Los Troqueros Lounge. Our musical guides: Leo Garza y sus Estrellas, Little Joe y la Familia, Chavela Ortíz with the Brown Express, and Los Madrugadores.

The double feature screens one night only, September 25, at the Rialto Cinemas Cerrito in El Cerrito, then opens September 27 for a one-week engagement at the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley. Filmmaker Gosling, Down Home Music founder Chris Strachwitz, and artist Harrod Blank appear in person with special musical guests at each location. Argotpictures.com 

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