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Soundtrack review: Cartel land (H Scott Salinas and Jackson Greenberg – 2015)

Documentary Film scores

Soundtrack review: Cartel land (H Scott Salinas and Jackson Greenberg – 2015)


“Cartel land” sounds like an interesting and intriguing documentary. It shows the journey of two modern day vigilante groups in Mexico as they try to take on a shared enemy, the drug cartel. I don’t imagine a happy ending, since it’s a documentary but I will want to watch it. The score was written by H Scott Salinas and Jackson Greenberg, two composers I will meet musically thanks to this score. Somehow Cliff Martinez’s minimalistic and intense score for “Traffic” comes to mind when I think of this subject.

It’s more Gustavo Santaolalla in the way the score opens and it’s even better. “The Cook” is like a slow zoom in of the camera on a particular scene before it starts following the character that is silent for now. The mood is poignant and lonely and there’s that feeling that the story doesn’t start now. The music makes me think that we are picking up in the middle of something that’s been going on for quite a while. This is the kind of reflective, serious and atmospheric sound that I enjoy. It usually doesn’t evoke happy times and places, but I do like a score that helps me think better and puts me in a certain mood. “Cartel land” progresses in stealth mode but just as decisive and it makes an impact .The traditional acoustic guitar, the piano in the background and some sounds in the background that echo the hot desert for me are just what the doctor order. The score is quietly melodic and tells me a story I want to hear.

There are moments like “What would you do?” that go even deeper and the smart instrumental arrangement reaches a place inside me I like to revisit from time to time. The sound is minimalistic, electronic and muffled as if I was hiding somewhere and watching a scene develop. “Cartel land” never gets loud or intrusive and keeps getting me the feeling of a hidden camera following every move in the story. The music feels like an integral part of the Mexican landscape, just like the scorching sun or the dust. The balance between instrumental and electronic is just right, the small traditional percussion inserts add to the ethnic flavor.

The two main characters, the leaders of the two vigilante groups, get their separate themes. The one for Nailer, the American veteran, is one of my favorite pieces from “Cartel land”. The acoustic strings build a courageous and hopeful image. The shorter theme for “El doctor” is sadder and more acoustic. It’s nice to hear a sort of comparison in the music between the guy who spent his entire life in Mexico and the American who still has some hope left. The theme for the cartel guys, “The assassins”, is ominous and uncomfortable.

I really enjoyed “Drug cartel”. It’s true that I am particular to this kind of sound, but even if I weren’t, the music that H. Scott Salinas and Jackson Greenberg wrote is thick, intense and serious and give the subject of the documentary justice. I will try to separate it from the story in future listens and mold in on my own moods. This is the kind of reflective score I always go back to with pleasure. If you usually enjoy Gustavo Santaolalla’s compositions, this one fits right in that category.

Cue rating: 88 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 22 / 45

Album excellence: 48%


The Cook

Border Patrol

Vigilantism 101

What Would You Do?


El Doctor

The People Win

Suiting Up

The Lucky Ones

Cartel Land (End Credits)

Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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