Music, says Joey Burns of Calexico, is "part of remembering the dead in daily life."
Every time he picks up his old black-and-white accordion, he remembers his grandfather.
"My mom's dad was a doctor, a German-American who played accordion," Burns says. "He gave me the accordion before he passed. I play it on all our recordings."
Playing the old-timey instrument is "challenging what's cool," Burns says. "It's part of connecting with my grandparents."
He keeps the accordion in the corner of his dining room, in an old house in the Tucson barrio. He takes it out of its case. It's a beautiful instrument, but Burns doesn't take it on tour; it's too precious. But he'll play it for the All Souls Calexico concert Sunday night, Nov. 8, at the Rialto, when the theater will be decked out like a massive Día de los Muertos shrine.
The concert by Calexico and friends, including Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta, Salvador Duran, Amparo Sánchez and Molehill Orkestrah, will be filmed in its entirety for the indie movie Flor de Muertos (flower of the dead).
Ordinary Tucsonans at the procession might find themselves in the movie, which should debut in a year or so. The movie's director, Danny Vinik, a Tucsonan best-known for the punk documentary TV Party, will also film the All Souls Procession and its grand finale.
"The best costumes will be in the movie," Vinik declares, only half-joking. His director of photography, Lisa Rinzler, a high flyer whose credits include work for Wim Wenders and the Hughes brothers, will have cameras positioned all along the parade route. And the camera operators will follow Calexico after the procession when the band members, costumed in early 20th-century woolen suits, may—or may not—march down Toole Avenue, leading merrymakers to the Rialto.
"That's the beauty of it: We don't know what's going to happen," Burns says with a grin.
Flor de Muertos takes its name from the yellow marigolds that Mexicans place on the graves of their ancestors on the Day of the Dead.
Last week, Vinik and Rinzler shot scenes in the abundant marigold fields around Magdalena. On the actual Día de los Muertos, they took the members of Calexico—including Burns, John Convertino, Jacob Valenzuela and the three guest artists—to Nogales, Sonora, to film in a cemetery by night.
Darting back and forth across the border, the film will be a "meditation on the cross-cultural collisions around death, with the Day of the Dead and the All Souls Procession as the base," says producer Doug Biggers, executive director of the Rialto Theatre Foundation (and former editor/publisher of the Tucson Weekly).
The border will serve as a metaphor of that clashing and melding. And the soundtrack will be Calexico's music, an unpredictable mix of Spanish guitar and electric distortion, rolled up with rock 'n' roll and shot through with mariachi brass.
Co-producer Ted Abrams, a city magistrate and a member of the Rialto and Loft Cinema boards, came up with the idea several years ago. He imagined a "film with Calexico in the context of the Day of the Dead, and capturing the procession," he said.
But Abrams also was familiar with the dark side of border life. He had worked out on the Tohono O'odham Nation as a public defender, and daily took the long drive through the desert to Sells, through the most deadly migrant corridor in the United States.
"Every day, there would be people running across the street with clothes (in a backpack) and a jug of water," he says. "Or the Border Patrol with people face-down."
A movie, he thought, could be about the "craziness of the border" but also about the "positiveness of Mexican culture. Without it, Tucson would not be what it is."
Director Vinik has just a 10-page script, and he expects to shoot up to 40 minutes of film for every minute that ends up in the estimated 90-minute movie. What storyline there is continues to evolve. Caught last week in his barrio office, where the cell phones were buzzing every few minutes, he tried to put into words his poetic vision for the movie.
"It will have elements of the ways and passages in people's lives," he says. "Some of it, we're staging. Some, we're finding in real life, weaving and mixing."
A former manager at Club Congress, Vinik says he considers the All Souls Procession not so much an offshoot of the Day of the Dead as a "very Tucson celebration." But in Tucson, he adds, "We're very close to the border." He'll look at "how people remember the dead. They make altars, whether it's a Latin altar or a few pictures on the piano."
Partially a documentary, the film will allude to the tragedy of the border dead—the final count of migrant bodies found in Southern Arizona this fiscal year is 206—in a "lyrical and poetic way." Likewise, it will look at the border wall through the work of musician Glenn Weyant, who "plays" the border wall with chopsticks and a cello bow.
Once he has a rough cut, "We'll get with Calexico," and Burns and company will compose a score.
Biggers predicts the movie, with its unique look at borderlands culture and the added attraction of a filmed Calexico concert, will find a slot in movie festivals and a ready market. Proceeds will benefit a trio of local nonprofits: Many Mouths One Stomach, organizer of the All Souls Procession, which is strapped for cash; the Loft Cinema; and the Rialto itself.
Burns and his fellow Calexico-ers have been in movies before—including I'm Not There, about Bob Dylan's life—and he's happy to bring his music to this project.
At last year's procession, he says, he was reminded of his own beloved dead.
Mexico has "more of a natural way of looking at death," Burns continues. "It makes sense that the downtown arts scene sees this and makes it their own. It's about paying respects, about being together, about what is so important in life, remembering those who have left us. It's not just a parade. It's about remembrance.
And then he picks up his grandfather's accordion again and begins to play.