MATEO is the compelling new documentary about American musician Matthew Stoneman and his travels making music in Cuba and performing in Los Angeles and Asia. The film is currently in theaters and is available on VOD and iTunes. Check out our review of the film HERE and our interview with Matthew “Mateo” Stoneman and director Aaron I. Naar.
MATEO follows America’s most notorious gringo mariachi singer on his misadventures in Cuba. Matthew Stoneman dreamed of pop stardom. Instead, he went to jail, learned Spanish, and emerged as “Mateo,” America’s first white mariachi singer. Mateo is on the brink of completing an album of original songs in Havana. But his estrangement from friends and family, his criminal past, and his love for Cuban women could derail him on his quest for fame.
Andrew Hawkins: Where did the idea to make a film about Mateo come from. Aaron, did you start off as a fan?
Aaron I. Naar: Well, I had just moved to Los Angeles in 2009 and a few months after that one of the other producers on the film, Benjamin Dohrmann, read this big article in the L.A. Times that was sort of like an expose on Matthew as Mateo, cause he has like a little celebrity following in East L.A. cause he’s a hard worker and he was playing all these restaurants. And this L.A. Times article was the first to sort of break his backstory and it turned out that he was living sort of near me and I was looking for sort of a robust subject to dive into. And they put the contact of Matthew at the end of the article and I decided to contact him and it went from there.
AH: You mention the incredible work ethic that you have Matthew. How did that help in making the film? It seems like you’re always working and making music. How did that affect making the movie?
Matthew “Mateo” Stoneman: Well, they just kind of had to keep up. (laughs) Yeah, you know and after a while I for get that they’re there.
AN: Yeah, that’s definitely part of the charm. It’s pretty motivating to watch someone who works very hard for what they want, but for a while there he was very elusive He has a lot more energy than anyone so it was just chasing him around in every city that he was in. In L.A we were trying to keep up with him and in Havana we were trying to keep up with him and it definitely kept us on our toes, but every day it was new stuff.
AH: In the beginning of the film you’re working the restaurants, how is it being at the ground level where you are directly responsible for getting your work out there?
MS: Well it makes you a better singer cause if you wanna sell those CD you better move people, connect with them.
AN: It’s an interesting thing to witness, because in the beginning when we were following him he was singing the same 25 songs ten times a day every single day. And he would even be competing sometimes with other artists that were singing the same songs in a completely different way. And I know for a while maybe a year or two in, you’re voice is really hurting.
MS: As the economy started crashing I started to have to work my way out of the restaurants because it’s so hard on the voice. And there’s not too much respect, there’s just a lot of talking, a little bit too ghetto. (laughs)
AN: I mean singing for tips is hard. Not everyone’s always willing to be respectful, some people are just there to eat and don’t want to be bothered and we definitely saw that.
MS: Every restaurant has like five more TVs and it’s a hard way to make a living.
AH: One thing occurs later in the film is you have a huge reception in Asia.
MS: Well I sing in Japan, I’m supposed to go to Korea. I sell CDs in Korea but I haven’t been there yet. They found me on the internet and a record company over there, and they’re just the best audiences, so receptive and open to what I do.
AH: How has the film been received by audiences at festivals and screenings?
AN: It’s been really interesting to take the film to different cities in the US, but countries in general and our biggest roll out has happened in the US and hopefully from here we’ll start to roll out through the rest of the world. But you know it’s interesting to see cultural differences between people and what details they try to latch on to. Some people want to talk about the fact that Matthew’s white and singing in Spanish, or the type of music, or where he’s from, or the fact that an American is even in Cuba. Some people want to talk about prison and that’s all they want to talk about. What I would really like is, Matthew is a pretty dynamic guy and it’s great when he travels with the film, because you get to watch this very specific story on screen and then you see him in person and he’s extremely charming.
On stage Matthew is the best, he”s such a good performer because he’s used to doing it. I would say overall though it’s been a pretty positive reception and I’m hoping people become much more familiar with his music. I think people are going to be pretty impressed with his musicianship cause he’s recording with amazing musicians in Cuba, not just Matthew himself. They are people who are recording on all these different albums and a lot of them tour the world as well. So at the very least I think there’s a quality to the soundtrack and the music and the score that’s compelling.