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Fan fare
Fernando Trueba goes beyond Buena Vista


Those who gripe when music movies have too much talking and not enough music will have few complaints about Fernando Trueba’s Calle 54 — it’s truly a fan’s movie about Latin jazz. Providing just enough narration to introduce each musician and just enough history and analysis to create a narrative flow, the Spanish director offers up 12 uninterrupted performances by some of the best Latin jazz musicians in the world, including Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés, percussionist Tito Puente, Nuyorican trumpeter Jerry González and the Fort Apache Band, Cuban bassist Cachao, and Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias. His filmmaker’s eye follows his fan’s ear; the resulting visuals celebrate the physical vitality, intellectual daring, and sheer charisma of Latin jazz. It’s a personal tribute to what Trueba calls “the miracle of music.”

And there are some pretty miraculous moments here. Filmed against a blood-red background, González and the Fort Apache Band are at the top of their form. The venerable composer Chico O’Farrill conducts a young big band through a new arrangement of “Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite,” a pioneering 50-year-old Cuban jazz piece that still sounds up-to-the-minute. Elias eases her way through a very elegant “Samba triste,” and Spanish pianist Chano Domínguez and his group are riveting in a flamenco-jazz fusion number. Only an embittered Gato Barbieri is subpar. The director never flaunts the breadth of his knowledge, but it’s a judiciously pan-Hispanic selection of styles whose sole notable absentee is innovative Eddie Palmieri.

Trueba, who won the 1992 Best Foreign Film Oscar for Belle Époque, keeps his cameras in motion to the music, and the images tell us more about its theatricality and complexity than words can. The crooked smile and sad eyes of Jerry González convey both the exertion and the joy of his art. Chucho Valdés, his long fingers filmed from above or in extreme close-up at keyboard level, loses himself in an explosive performance of “Caridad amaro” that moves from delicacy to violence. At the end of this grueling performance, the camera moves in on his fleshy face and sleepy eye. He isn’t even sweating. Pianist Michel Camillo, whose performance at the end of Trueba’s 1996 film Loco de Amor (Two Much) inspired the director to make this documentary, seeks out his trio sidemen with eager eyes that reflect the music’s elation.

Focused as it is on performance and on-stage personas, Calle 54 perhaps slights the history of Cuban music. Puente provides a names-and-faces rundown of Latin jazz heroes, and there’s a brief discussion of the African roots of jazz and Cuban music. But you won’t be able to tell a Cuban rumba from a Brazilian samba unless you already know. More important, there’s no mention of the revolution (I don’t recall that Castro’s name is even mentioned). The musicians who fled Cuba brought the music to New York, where Latin jazz was truly born, but they also brought resentments that have wielded a powerful social and political influence on the music. (In Miami, for instance, expatriate Cubans called in death threats to the Buena Vista Social Club tour.) The film alludes to these developments indirectly — for example, most of the musicians are filmed in the dead of a New York winter, a bleak contrast to Cuba’s Caribbean warmth that fairly screams “North!”

Yet Trueba does underline the significance of the expatriate experience on Latin jazz in two sequences that feature septuagenarian pianist Bebo Valdés, father of Chucho. First seen crunching along an icy beach in Stockholm, Bebo had fled the revolution and a prestigious gig leading the Tropicana Orchestra in 1960. He later married a Swedish woman and moved to Stockholm. Bassist Cachao, Bebo’s exact contemporary and a leading architect of the mambo, also left the island, but he went no farther than Miami. Despite their eminent positions in Cuban music, they had never recorded together until Trueba brought them together in Studio 54. At the end of their duet on “Lágrimas negras,” the crew break into applause — the only time they intrude in the film — and it’s a startling acknowledgment of a historical moment.

Bebo not only left Cuba, he left his son, Chucho, who became perhaps the country’s leading jazz musician as musical director of Irakere. A previous reunion between them is reported to have been strained. Yet at the end of Calle 54, Trueba gets them together for the first time in five years to play a lovely duet on “La comparsa.” The looks they exchange over the pianos speak only of affection and approval. When Chucho jumps up and embraces his father, it’s as moving a testimony to the power of music to unite and heal as any ever filmed. The miracle of music indeed.

Issue Date: May 10-17, 2001