Argentinian composer Gustavo Santaolalla looks back on his eclectic career

By Nihar Patel

Gustavo Santaolalla will be performing at UCLA’s Royce Hall Photo by Betsy Mezamoreno.

Gustavo Santaolalla might be the only Oscar-winning film composer who has been in jail. 

Before moving to Los Angeles in the late 1970s, Santaolalla was a Latin rock musician in his native country of Argentina, which was engulfed in what became known as “the Dirty War.” Dissidents, artists, and many who opposed the military dictatorship were imprisoned or disappeared.

“I was many times in jail … just for having long hair and playing rock music,” says Santaolalla. “I had nightmares of the police even two years after moving here.”

After arriving in LA, Gustavo Santaolalla found the music scene lacking, especially compared to what he fled.

“The bands which were really happening … like Styx, Boston and Kansas, they were bands that I really didn’t like,” he recalls. “I was coming from a country where they were putting me in jail … and suddenly it was limousines and corporate rock.”

He instead turned to LA’s early punk and new wave scene, fronting a band called Wet Picnic

“[The] LA [punk] scene at the time was boiling. It was really fantastic.”

Switching from Latin folk rock to punk and new wave wouldn’t be the last musical evolution for Santaolalla. He began composing music for movies, eventually winning two Oscars for Brokeback Mountain and Babel.

“I conceive music in visual terms, so in a way it was a natural and organic transition,” Santaolalla says.

Now at age 70, he’s decided to press pause and look back on his career. His upcoming concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall is called “Desandando el Camino,” which loosely translates to “Unwinding the Road.”

“I’m playing things that I wrote when I was … 15, 16 years old … until now,” Santaolalla says. “[It’s] the story of my life through my music.”