The amazing world of “Breaking Bad” en Español

Behind the scenes of <em>Metástasis</em>, the Spanish-language remake of <em>Breaking Bad</em>, which is going to considerable lengths to be a different kind of show.

Diego Trujillo as “Walter Blanco”

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

First there are the airborne khaki pants, floating across a clear sky. Then a giant vehicle comes careening into view, a man in tighty-whities and a gas mask at the wheel. He stumbles out into the open air and sticks a pistol in the waistband of his briefs. For viewers of Breaking Bad, it’s uncannily familiar. But the few differences are hard to ignore. Instead of an RV, there’s a rickety school bus. And instead of the severe orange mesas of the New Mexican desert, there are the green dips and swells of the Andes mountains. The man picks up a handheld camera as the screen closes in on his panicked face. “Mi nombre,” he says, “es Walter Blanco”.

This is the opening scene of Metástasis, the Spanish-language remake of Breaking Bad that will premiere later this year on networks across Latin America and on the Univision offshoot UniMás in the United States. Hank has become “Henry,” now a member of the national police force rather than a DEA agent. Jesse is Jose Miguel Rosas, strapping and square-jawed, looking less like an addict than a Hollister ad. Skyler is Cielo, “Sky” in Spanish. And then there’s Colombian telenovela star Diego Trujillo, the series’s intrepid Walter Blanco. On the surface, Metástasis is microscopically faithful to the original, down to the costumes and the camera angles. In the words of Univision president of programming and content Alberto Ciurana, it’s Breaking Bad with a “Latin flavour”.

But adapting an American TV show is far trickier than doling out culturally appropriate character names. Trujillo has seen firsthand how fraught the process can be. As soon as Metástasis was announced, he found himself bombarded with tweets from fellow Latin Americans outraged that a Breaking Bad remake was even being attempted. “Damn Colombian television for daring to do this. It’s an insult to the work of art that is Breaking Bad, ” wrote @aaronjose97. “There’s a lot of cultural shame,” Trujillo said, “about the fact that most adaptations we have done of American series are just not the same quality.” These, historically, have been the hallmarks of many such efforts: low production value, cheesy dialogue, ham-fisted translation that doesn’t quite manage to bridge the gap between its source material and its audience.

Metástasis is going to considerable lengths to be a different kind of show. According to Angelica Guerra, managing director of production for Latin America at Sony Pictures Television, the series, which has a “huge budget and the greatest actors of the region,” is an attempt to merge the very different sensibilities of prestige cable drama and Latin American television. Vince Gilligan himself consulted, offering input on casting and plot tweaks along the way.

There was, for one, the problem of the RV. Motor homes are very rare in Colombia, hence the old school bus that serves as Walter and Jose’s roving meth lab. And Colombian lawyers don’t market their services with over-the-top TV ads. So, rather than trolling for clients with the tagline “BETTER CALL SAUL,” Saúl Bueno hosts a late-night talk show – “Cuéntele a Saúl” – on which he dishes out legal advice. The neo-Nazis became a far-right Colombian paramilitary group. Also unfamiliar to Colombians are exterminators who cover entire residences in elaborate tarps in order to fumigate them. But Bogotá, with one of the highest urbanisation rates of any Latin American city, does have many vacant houses waiting to be torn down in order to make way for new high-rises. So Metástasis scraps the pest-control ruse of the final season of Breaking Bad and has Walter and Jose cook in soon-to-be demolished homes.

The hardest part of the show to translate, though, may be the defining trait of Breaking Bad: its moral complexity, the way it leaves your sympathies constantly seesawing between Walt and his victims. In this, it could hardly be more different from that staple of Latin American programming, the telenovela, with its frothy mix of dashing heroes and dashing rogues. Even the popular Colombian series “El Capo,” whose protagonist happens to be a family man who moonlights as a drug kingpin, features steamy romances and a reliably suave star. (Trujillo played a defense minister bent on capturing the crime lord.) Most previous Spanish-language remakes have been of American shows that were already telenovelas in spirit: take “A Corazón Abierto,” a version of “Grey’s Anatomy,” or the “Desperate Housewives” redo “Amas de Casa Desesperadas,” in which Trujillo – the man keeps busy – starred as a caddish husband. It’s easy to see why these shows seemed like easy adaptations. Their stories more or less take place in a vacuum, within the confines of a hospital or a household or a single upper-class neighbourhood, with little broader context. And yet those remakes still missed the mark. When a wealthy female character on “Amas de Casa Desesperadas” bedded her gardener, many viewers were more confused than titillated: In a society with such rigid class demarcations, that scenario, Trujillo explained, is simply hard to believe.

The features of Breaking Bad that gave the show its particular power – the subtlety of the performances; the slow, expansive landscape shots; the long stretches of silence – can be tough sells for a Latin American audience. So Metástasis makes some concessions to tradition. Perhaps the biggest is a swooning soundtrack that erupts at unexpected moments: when Walter is diagnosed with cancer or when he sits by the pool at night pondering his fate. “Because of our telenovela background, we put music in everything,” said Guerra. “It’s a rule you don’t break.”

The acting, too, has been slightly amped up. Trujillo had never seen Breaking Bad when he was called in to audition for Metástasis. So he sat down and watched the whole series on Netflix, marveling at the way Bryan Cranston slowly morphs from meek schoolteacher into homicidal monster. “I was used to working on soap operas, where the characters are so two-dimensional – black or white, good or bad. And they stay the same from beginning to end of a series,” Trujillo said. “But Walter White transforms.” “For the first time,” he added, “I had no idea how to play the part.”

Spanish-speaking audiences expect more vocal expressiveness, he explained, more hand gestures. And so as Walter records the video message for his family in the opening scene, Trujillo breaks down for a moment in wrenching sobs. “I’d never want to be looked at as someone who was just copying Cranston,” he said. Roberto Urbina, who plays Jose (Jesse) had only done a few acting gigs before Metástasis and was a Breaking Bad fan long before his audition; Jesse was his favourite character. But he was determined to push Aaron Paul out of his mind. To prepare for the role, he imagined a whole new backstory for his Jose: for instance, that he’d been adopted, instead of simply estranged from his parents. On-screen, the differences are plain. Where Jesse sulks, Jose broods. His vibe is more lapsed prom king than scrappy drug-dealing punk. The catchphrase “Yeah, bitch” doesn’t translate into Spanish, after all.

To its credit, Metástasis is fully aware of the trickiness of adaptation, of just how much cultural baggage is involved. In the pilot episode, there is a scene in which Walter is at home celebrating his birthday with family and friends. A mariachi band serenades them cheerfully. The guests gather around the television, watching a news interview that Henry recorded after a meth bust. Meth isn’t a particularly well-known drug in Colombia; the industry there is still fledgling because cocaine is so much easier to procure. So the script has to weave in a few lines of explanatory dialogue.

“What’s methamphetamine?” Cielo asks.

It’s a new drug, Henry tells her, that originated in the States.

“So why is it here?” she wonders.

Her sister, Maria, chimes in. “Here,” she says with the faintest eye-roll, “we love to copy what the gringos do.”

Laura Bennett is a staff writer at The New Republic.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

 

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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.