Shakira was sick of being a celebrity. Colombia's sensationally successful singer-songwriter had just come off her Oral Fixation tour this year, taking her to 140 cities on five continents to perform for 2.5 million fans. But even stardom can be a drag.
So she put away her revealing sequined gowns and hip-hugging pants, donned jeans and sneakers, tucked her famous shock of dyed hair under a cap and went undercover as a summer student at University of California, Los Angeles. She enrolled in a history of Western civilization course under her middle and last names, Isabel Mebarak, telling clueless classmates she was visiting from Colombia.
"Oh, it was such a respite for me," Shakira recalls. "I felt that need to put a brake on everything, to escape from the celebrity life and reclaim a normal life for a while. It was very healthy for me."
Her decompression from rock star to common coed was not just therapeutic, it coincided with the creative retreat she required to compose new songs for the film Love in the Time of Cholera, which opened last week. This is the first time she has written music for a movie, a challenge she assumed in honor of her compatriot, mentor and "dear friend," Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Nobel laureate whose novel of love and irrational devotion is the basis for the movie.
The work marks a radical departure for Shakira, from flashy, electrified pop/rock to gentle, acoustic, Latin American folk styles. The songs -- a bolero and a traditional Andean tune -- are almost period pieces, tailored to the film's genteel setting in Cartagena circa 1900.
Shakira is possibly the most successful bicultural star Latin America has produced, and she's always been adept at straddling both English- and Spanish-speaking worlds with her seductive pop fusion that draws also on her Middle Eastern heritage. But these songs required her to tap into deep cultural roots, to reconnect with the music she was raised on in Barranquilla, music that still makes her cry and that instantly touches her soul, like a memory.
"It was refreshing, because it allowed me to leave the pop universe for a moment and not think about the Top 10 on the radio, and not think about ... ." She pauses. "And simply not think. To just let the sensibility flow from those stories, let those Garcia Marquez metaphors connect with the deepest part of me, and allow the music to be born from all of that."
Shakira, who writes her own songs in Spanish and English, speaks at times as if she's writing out sentences in long hand, like the character of Florentino Ariza (Javier Bardem) writing his first love letter to the woman for whom he'd wait half a century, Fermina Urbino (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). It's as if she has an automatic editor in her brain, scanning for the right words, selecting, deleting, selecting again. When she talks about Colombia, she taps into a florid Castilian that flows in long passages, like the novel, which she calls "one of the last great love stories of our time."
The film's cool reviews seem beside the point in light of her passion for it as a vehicle to provide a positive image of her country, one not of guerrillas and drug lords but of "starry nights and long silences by the sea. ... That is the Colombia I wanted to share," she says, "and for that I felt it was a privilege to be involved in this project."
Garcia Marquez urged Shakira to take an acting role in the movie, she says, but other commitments forced her to turn down what would have been her acting debut. Producer Scott Steindorff, however, reveals another reason for her decision.
The role would have required some nudity, he says, and Shakira was reluctant to do that. Shakira says she's received many acting offers over the years, but the right one hasn't come along. That's going to be harder than finding true love, since she imposes tough preconditions.
"The script, the character, the director, it all has to come together to assure me that I'll be protected, because I have an image ... ." She pauses again to correct herself. "I have a responsibility to my public, so I don't want to get into something that could fail."
On the other hand, she had no doubt about her ability to write the songs for this film. The music came to her spontaneously after she saw a rough cut in London. When it was over, she turned to British director Mike Newell and hummed a melody for him.
"The bolero is in my blood," says Shakira. "And it's undoubtedly the pinnacle of romantic music. Nothing can capture the sentiment of love like a bolero does, and nothing else could do justice to this story."
Agustin Gurza writes for the Los Angeles Times.