Matthew Stoneman, who goes by the adopted moniker Mateo, is a bit of an odd bird—and the documentary made in his name (or: alias) is easily as perplexing, straddling the line between the grating and the intriguing aspects of its subject’s life.
When the movie opens, Mateo is depicted as a loner—soft-spoken, at least until you can get him eagerly chatting about Cuban women. He’s seen sitting in the center of a chaotic apartment, not a storage container in sight, with an incalculable amount of clothes strewn about; he’s strumming on an acoustic guitar before night falls; he’s doing chores; he’s walking between Mexican mom and pop restaurants in L.A., serenading customers and selling CDs. Eventually he will return home to feed the feral cats on his block. Yet his past isn’t so simple: The unassuming man once landed in jail for stealing, a habit he says he just couldn’t quit. It was there Matthew recalls learning Spanish, as well as the songs his fellow inmates would sing when bored at night. Picking up on his newfound love of Mexican music, he began recording and performing, so much so, he caught the LA Times’ eye as the gringo with the mariachi band.
But documentary Mateo is not about shedding a positive light on a reformed con. So, when Mateo’s interests spread to Cuba, where he now does a majority of his recording with local musicians, his fetishes begin to take hold. He has a family to take him in, as well as a rumored son with one of the women he’s seen with in the movie, and it’s during one of his cultural tourist stops that Mateo’s sexual obsession with Cuban women first becomes well known. Cue shots of him cruising for companionship outside of brothels.
Because he is white, and so very clearly an outsider to this world, he’s given access to such women on the currency of his American passport alone. He’s hardly questioned by guards when he sneaks in to a club to look at ladies, locals assuming he has wealth despite his rumpled wear. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to more than one of his partners, some of whom are also talked about by the older women in Mateo’s life. They wish for him to grow up and settle down—others remark that his addiction to women will eventually get him into trouble again.
Despite always scraping coins together for his next flight to Cuba and his cash-strapped abode Stateside, Mateo continues to tinker with his music and love for Mexican corridos and Cuban sons. It’s a feat both admirable and disheartening: Imagine working so hard for years on a dream you think is just over the horizon, yet knowing full well you may never capture it after all that time running from Catholic wedding to retirement community rec hall.
But that’s the musician’s life if those Almost Famous aspirations are meant to be believed. Mateo is director Aaron I. Naar’s first feature-length film, and though he’s worked previously on other Spanish language shorts and holds a degree in Latino studies, and though Naar may be a filmmaker deeply interested and invested in Latino culture, Mateo is most interested in the cultural remixing that fascinates his subject. It’s a strange confluence the film represents, borderline appropriative, equally fetishizing its Cuban subjects and trying to be honest about Mateo’s obsessions.
Of course, the documentary’s music is largely Mateo’s own, recordings messily stored in a storage container for years, and Naar gives the musician space to tour through his expansive musical catalog to explain his growth from petty guitar plucker to a full bloom composer. Still—none of it never sounds just right, or at least his covers never quite capture the syllabic rhythm and vocal riffs needed to properly pronounce the kinds of songs of longing and loss he emulates. His voice isn’t just noticeably much lighter than his compadres on the restaurant block, he sounds more like he’s crafting a lilting slow jam than one with any necessary bravado.
And so, a sense of distance arises between Naar and his subject. The director’s definitely ready to separate himself to show Matthew for who he is, good or bad, and we never get a sense of judgement or condemnation from behind the camera. Yet, as a Latina viewing the film, I could not help but feel uncomfortable at the easy co-option of our music—not to mention the commodification of women like myself behind Mateo’s gaze. Whether intentional or not, Mateo left a bitter aftertaste—and Matthew Stoneman’s story becomes one so much more grating than intriguing.
Director: Aaron I. Naar
Starring: Matthew Stoneman
Release Date: August 21, 2015
Monica Castillo is a freelance film critic and writer based in Los Angeles. You can usually find her outside of a movie theater excitedly talking about the film she just saw, or on Twitter.