One night in 1960, the multi-hyphenate musician Trini Lopez stepped off the stage at the Cotton Club, in Lubbock, where he’d just ripped through a rollicking set, and picked up the phone. A local DJ and record producer named Tommy “Snuff” Garrett was on the line. Would Lopez want to come out to Hollywood to be the new lead singer of the Crickets, the late Buddy Holly’s band, and tour with them?
A Dallas native in his early twenties, Lopez was popular around the North Texas nightclub circuit at the time. Two years earlier he’d written and recorded a song that made the rounds at local clubs, “The Right to Rock,” a propulsive manifesto defending the emergence of rock and roll, a then controversial new genre. When opportunity called, though, Lopez knew it was time to go. His family sobbed as he packed his bags. “I’ve done everything here in Dallas I possibly could,” his nephew, Robert Diaz, remembers Lopez saying. “I think that I’ve peaked; it’s time for me to move on to the big city.”
Lopez drove west for three days in his red woodie station wagon before reaching Los Angeles, where he marveled at the splendor of the Sunset Strip and was awed at meeting Elvis Presley on the set of G.I. Blues. He’d promised to send his family money from gigs, but the Crickets were spending most of their time drinking and reveling. The $200 Lopez had arrived with evaporated swiftly, so he asked the band’s agent if he could set up a few solo shows. When Lopez headed to his audition at Ye Little Club, in Beverly Hills, he couldn’t get over the rows of palm trees and mountains. “Man, was I impressed,” he recalled decades later. “Wow!”
Lopez’s wide-eyed sense of wonder never went away, as P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes’s new documentary about the late musician, My Name Is Lopez (screening Sunday at the Oak Cliff Film Festival), makes plain. Even while regaling viewers about how he became both a mentee of Frank Sinatra’s and part of his infamous Rat Pack, or the time he played with the Beatles in Paris (“Bravo Trini Lopez,” the French paper L’Impartial wrote, adding, “Who are the Beatles?”), Lopez spins yarns like he still can’t quite believe these things happened to him.
His trailblazing career is nothing short of extraordinary. The son of Mexican immigrants, he had a rough-and-tumble childhood in Dallas’s Little Mexico. Lopez refused to Anglicize or otherwise change his last name to boost record sales, as producers often insisted he do. “He is the man who made the Latin name acceptable, made it American, let’s put it that way,” codirector and coproducer Hughes tells me over the phone. “The Hollywood dream machine was saying, ‘No, no, no, we don’t want any ethnicity here.’ And he said, ‘I won’t do it, and will prove you can be successful.’”
Lopez’s list of achievements is long. He arguably was one of the first to fuse folk standards, the nascent genre of rock and roll, and traditional Latin American rhythms, setting the template for what later became known as Latin rock. He also owned a beloved, eponymous Mexican American restaurant chain, created a rare Gibson guitar coveted by the likes of ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, influenced the Jefferson Airplane to go electric, and was revered as one of the most live-wire entertainers of the sixties.
Yet his name is seldom mentioned in the same breath as other cultural luminaries and showmen of the day, including fellow Rat Pack members Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin. My Name Is Lopez, produced by the directors and Lopez’s friends and next-door neighbors Gary and Joan Gand, aims to ensure that this musical polymath receives his rightful due.
My Name Is Lopez excels in preserving the legacy of this unsung Texan musician, one who refused to shy away from his roots at a time when legislation in the U.S. discriminated against Mexican American as well as Black residents. But the film is stymied by structural problems, starting with an uneven beginning that breathlessly flits from his hit cover of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s “America” all the way to his 2019 show in Palm Springs, to how he was a ladies’ man, then on to how he rubbed elbows with Princess Grace, to a mention about how longtime fans discovered his albums at the record store and beyond.
All this bombards the viewer before we’ve even been introduced to the man behind the music. While told roughly chronologically, the story constantly jumps through time, peppering in sit-down interviews with Lopez; his longtime partner and biographer, Oralee Walker; and his friend and musical contemporary Dionne Warwick, among others, with gorgeous archival images and footage from the Palm Springs gig two years ago, before jumping back to the early sixties. In theory, this approach helps contextualize songs as he performs them. In practice, it comes off as a bit jarring, making it harder to follow the story.
One reason for this narrative muddling might be the pandemic, which forced the filmmakers to completely reenvision the project. When they first started conceptualizing the film in 2018, Ebersole and Hughes intended to follow Lopez on tour as he performed with the Gand Band (his friends and neighbors who coproduced the film) in his hometown and across the nation, and hoped to premiere it at South by Southwest. The project took a different direction when COVID-19 halted live music indefinitely. Then Lopez contracted the coronavirus after undergoing surgery last summer, and tragically died from COVID-19 complications in August 2020 at the age of 83. The directors, who were in the middle of editing and had planned to sit down with Lopez and Walker and show them the first rough cut just days before his death, were stunned.
Ebersole and Hughes’s documentaries often point the camera at fascinating pop culture figures such as French design phenom Pierre Cardin. But the two had never grappled with the death of a subject during production; as Hughes puts it, “we’re used to working with people that we just don’t think are going anywhere.” (The documentary on the designer, House of Cardin, premiered in 2019; Cardin died in late 2020.) They regrouped, bringing in Walker to help round out the film with a more intimate perspective on Lopez.
In the new version, they tackled material that Lopez might not have liked, such as taking a closer look at the fact that his idol and mentor, Frank Sinatra, insisted that he drop out of costarring in The Dirty Dozen, a big-budget picture that had been delayed, in order to get back into the recording studio. The documentary suggests that Sinatra lost money every day that Lopez was on set; typically, Lopez recorded about four albums a year for Ol’ Blue Eyes’ Reprise Records. Lopez acquiesced to Sinatra, despite wanting to continue filming and perhaps wondering what his life might have been like had he tried to do more on the silver screen. “We were able, I think, to just say, ‘Well, it’s okay to say a couple of things that maybe Trini wouldn’t have loved, like, for instance, just a little more honest treatment of Frank Sinatra,’” says Ebersole. This nuanced retelling of the Sinatra story also prevents My Name Is Lopez from becoming a hagiography.
Structural shakiness aside, the film brims with scintillating anecdotes about Lopez’s career and eyebrow-raising asides about his upbringing, many of them detailed by the man himself. He recalls how his parents moved to Texas from Moroleón, Guanajuato, so their children would have better lives. They chose Dallas at the behest of a priest. In another scene, we learn that after spending sixteen-hour days picking potatoes, tomatoes, and beets with his family one summer, a young Lopez would climb onto a fence post and pluck along to Mexican folk songs that his father had taught him (on a guitar he purchased for Trini at a pawn shop when feeling guilty over having beaten him with a belt). One day, a herd of curious cows approached Lopez as he played: his first audience. “I said to myself, ‘If I can get the attention of cows, maybe people will like me,’” he says in the documentary, grinning.
After being voted most likely to succeed in high school because he was already gigging around Dallas, often at segregated nightclubs where fellow Mexican Americans couldn’t come to enjoy the performance, he dropped out of high school to help his family make ends meet. While Lopez was still a teenager, Buddy Holly, in a chance meeting that helped launch Lopez’s career, suggested he meet with Holly’s producer at Norman Petty Recording Studios, in Clovis, New Mexico, to potentially record. After Lopez released his successful live album, Trini Lopez at PJ’s, which featured ripping covers of “If I Had a Hammer” and “La Bamba,” he bought his parents a house and a Cadillac Fleetwood.
My Name Is Lopez doesn’t gloss over the racial injustices the musician confronted. While telling painful stories, he sometimes looks away from the camera, cracking jokes and laughing softly. It’s clear that self-deprecating humor helped him cope: Once, while proudly telling Hugh Hefner on the show Playboy After Dark about his new eponymous Mexican American restaurants, Trini’s, he quipped: “I’m very proud of this venture because my restaurants are so authentic, you can’t even drink the water there.” In another instance, one of his early all-white bands staged a mutiny against him, waking him up one day at 8 a.m. to declare that he couldn’t be their singer and manager anymore. “I’m gonna have to get another band,” he remembers saying at the time. He cried himself to sleep for several nights after that.
Lopez captivated any room he was in, and his personality carries the documentary. Even on film he bore the distinctive quality of making one feel as though his attention was trained solely on you. Quiet, vulnerable moments stuck with me more than those featuring glitz and glamour: footage of just him and a guitar, bathed in a spotlight and thrumming and singing along to the Mexican standard “Cucurrucucú Paloma,” stunned me. His voice is mellifluous and sure, his songs influenced by pain and yet vessels of hope.
The film closes by touching on Lopez’s death, but it doesn’t dwell on it. His longtime companion, Walker, recalls that shortly before his passing, Lopez told her: “I have achieved all my wishes, all my desires, all my goals. I’ve done it all. I think it must be time to start new goals.” In his eighties, after all he’d accomplished, Lopez was still full of creative energy. It’s bittersweet to imagine what he might have done next.
My Name Is Lopez is, undoubtedly, an important remembrance of a revolutionary icon who refused to concede his identity in order to ascend in his career. But it didn’t fully sate my curiosity as a viewer. By the end, I had jotted down dozens of questions that had gone unaddressed in the documentary: What became of Trini’s restaurants, for instance, and did they shape the trajectory of Mexican American cuisine? How did Lopez meet Walker, and how did their creative and romantic partnership unfold? What were the last four decades of his life like? But in a way, perhaps the dissatisfaction I felt as the credits rolled is fitting: in the tradition of all great entertainers, Trini Lopez’s life story leaves you wanting an encore.