LOS ANGELES -- Music took hold of Gustavo Santaolalla as a boy in Argentina and hasn't let go of him since. The award-winning musician-songwriter and Latin rock producer whose career began at 16 can now count among his accolades a Golden Globe award for best original song in the film "Brokeback Mountain."
Could an Oscar be around the corner? "It's a great moment," says Santaolalla, 54, "because I think everything that I loved, that I grew up interested in, now I'm doing."
Beyond recording music, Santaolalla has been clocking his share of stage time at award shows the past year, being named producer of the year at the Latin Grammys in November and lauded for his film scoring on "21 Grams" and "Motorcycle Diaries" on the film festival circuit.
But it was the ballad "A Love That Will Never Grow Old," which he wrote with longtime Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin for "Brokeback Mountain" that landed him his first Golden Globe and, the next day, a congratulatory message from the president of Argentina.
The wave of recognition is opening doors in mainstream Hollywood for Santaolalla, a feat that still seems unlikely for an artist who hails from a South American country and retains an unabashed love of his culture and musical traditions. "I was happy (Monday) because I think I was probably the only Hispanic that got an award," said Santaolalla (pronounced San-tuh-oh-Lah'-yah), a father of three who lives in Los Angeles. "For me that meant a lot."
Santaolalla's career, like his music, has evolved in ways he scarcely imagined when he formed his first band, Arco Iris (Rainbow), in 1967 while still a teenager living in Buenos Aires. Nearly a decade after his first foray into recording music, he moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970s as the punk rock movement began to gain a foothold in the United States. It was then that Santaolalla and his business partner, Anibal Kerpel, began making a name for themselves as producers, not of the traditional Latin music sound but rather a new kind of Latin alternative rock. The team's first breakthrough artist was Mexico's Cafe Tacuba. That led to Santaolalla starting his own record label, Surco, and a string of producing gigs with genre-defying bands such as Colombia's Juanes, Mexico's Molotov, Argentina's Bajofondo Tango Club and the classical jazz group Kronos Quartet. "I have produced all kinds of music because I love all kinds of music," Santaolalla said. Santaolalla, who began learning guitar as a boy, plays by ear, a skill that at age 10 so frustrated his music teacher that she quit, lamenting to his mother that "'his ear is stronger than my music,"' Santaolalla recalled. Santaolalla's transition into film scoring and songwriting can be traced to his earliest recordings with his first band. Included in that first album were several instrumentals that Santaolalla now says hinted at his scoring approach. "In a way it was the blueprint for what I did in 'Motorcycle Diaries,"' he said. But it was his first all-instrumental album, a project that took him 13 years to complete, that led to Santaolalla's first major film assignment in Hollywood. The album, featuring the charango, or South American lute, caught director-producer Michael Mann's ear and he used some of the music for his 1999 thriller "The Insider."
A year later, Santaolalla scored Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's drama "Amores Perros." His work on Inarritu's "21 Grams" and Walter Salles' "Motorcycle Diaries" in 2003 and 2004 placed him squarely on Hollywood's radar. That's when he met Ang Lee and learned about the cowboy romance "Brokeback Mountain." Santaolalla began scoring the film, drawing only on his reading of the script and the short story by Annie Proulx on which the film is based.
"Ninety-nine percent of the music for 'Brokeback Mountain' I wrote before the movie was shot," he said.
The score prominently features the sound of pedal steel guitar, evoking both a traditional yet transcendent Western sound. "The stereotype might have been to call someone from Texas to do the scoring," he said. "Some people might think maybe a Hispanic guy couldn't do it, and here I am."
His work on "Brokeback Mountain" earned him a Golden Globe nomination for best original score, which he lost to John Williams' "Memoirs of a Geisha." He hopes he'll be luckier when Oscar time rolls around, though an Academy Award for his Golden Globe-winning song is not in the cards. It was disqualified from contention by the cademy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences because it's not featured prominently enough in the film, he said. He could still be nominated for the score.
Accolades aside, Santaolalla's work is far from done. He is slated to produce two albums and scoring another Inarritu film, "Babel," starring Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt.
"I'm kind of letting my life go," he said. "I always feel like I have a booking agent somewhere up there and all these things happen. It's amazing."