After Birdman’s big night at the Oscars this week, millions of people around the world will get acquainted with Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Not unlike what happens when some semi-obscure writer wins the Nobel Prize in Literature, movie fans will now experience “Amores Perros”, “21 Grams” or “Babel” for the first time. Some might even bring themselves to endure the bleakness of “Biutiful”.
They will find a director obsessed with the cruelty of chance and the inevitable fragility of the human condition. They will also find unforgettable scenes and sequences, like the brutal car-crash in Amores, Gael Garcia Bernal’s lovelorn gaze or that aerial dolly back, an acrobatic feat of filmmaking, at the end of Babel’s Japanese story.
What they won’t find is González Iñárritu himself. For that you have to go back 30 years to an improbable and exhilarating experiment that took place in Mexico City in 1984.
Televisa, Mexico’s media giant, was in no mood to try new things at that time. Its entertainment formula had already proven –and still proves – irresistible: telenovelas ruled the airwaves, American-format game shows, and there was no political freedom to speak of. Mexican television in the 1980s did not welcome innovation. But radio was a different story. Televisa owned a series of radio stations under the banner of “La W”, a beloved AM frequency that was home of Agustín Lara, Pedro Infante and other 20th century Mexican icons.
By 1984, the company had decided to launch an FM version of the station. Televisa gave control of the operation to a young and resourceful executive named Miguel Alemán, who was given free rein with only one caveat: don’t cause any serious trouble. He promised to (mostly) behave and got to work. The first thing he did was schedule an open casting for potential hosts.
One of the first to answer the call was a 21-year-old college student with an encyclopedic knowledge of music and a deep, seductive voice to boot. Legend has it he stuttered a bit. But that didn’t matter; Alemán hired him almost on the spot.
After González Iñárritu, Alemán added other impressive names and came up with a bona fide dream team of not-quite-ready-for-primetime players. The SNL reference is no coincidence. Just as Lorne Michaels had done with America’s media landscape, Alemán and his WFM crew transformed Mexican pop-culture. Led by González Iñárritu, the station brought new and exciting music, discovered fresh voices (Martha Debayle, Charo Fernández, Eduardo Videgaray, Martín Hernández) and even conspired to open the country to rock concerts: they brought Rod Stewart to Mexico for the first time in 1988.
Through it all, González Iñárritu operated with absolute freedom. From the beginning, he showed little interest in creative compromise. Eventually, he left WFM to take on the role of image director for Televisa’s diverse channel line up. González Iñárritu brought the same knack for innovation and enjoyed mostly the same creative leeway on television as he had on the radio. All of a sudden, Televisa’s “Canal 5”, the company’s channel geared towards the younger crowd, started to resemble MTV.
It was only a matter of time until González Iñárritu took another leap and began directing ads. Again, he insisted on having control of every project and well-deserved acclaim immediately followed.
By the late 1990’s, González Iñárritu had conquered radio, television and was a successful businessman. The next step came naturally. “Radio and advertising were both rivers that led me to the ocean I really wanted to navigate”, he would later recall in an interview, with trademark lyricism:
Once more, from the very inception of his first film,González Iñárritu took creative control. But this time he had gained the wisdom to team up with the writer Guillermo Arriaga, who shared his talent and artistic vision. Together, they crafted a style of moviemaking all their own. Amores Perros became an international phenomenon and the rest is history.
González Iñárritu eventually distanced himself from Arriaga. It didn’t matter much. A master of reinvention, González Iñárritu came up with a change of tone that would challenge him further: a movie about a man in pursuit of an almost impossible artistic endeavor, hell-bent on keeping the stewardship of his creative ship. A true original. Fiercely independent. A bird man. Just like that kid from WFM.
A Mexican journalist and author. He's the main anchor for Univision's KMEX in Los Angeles.