Bright and eager, bouncy and buoyant, sharp-eyed and quick-eared and passionately in love–those are a few of the ways you could describe Calle 54, director Fernando Trueba’s tribute to a dozen Latin-jazz stars of three generations. Among them: Chico O’Farrill, Israel “Cachao” Lopez, Tito Puente, Chucho and Bebo Valdes, Paquito D’Rivera and Jerry and Andy Gonzalez.
The result is a catchy, discerning performance film about Latin jazz, one sure to be numbered among the few outstanding movies about music, with Dolby Surround sound to die for.
The 46-year-old Spanish director has a long and interestingly twisty oeuvre. The Year of the Awakening (1986) followed a Spanish boy’s discovery of sex with a nurse in a sanitarium. Belle Époque (1992) copped an Oscar for its bawdy picaresque tale of pre-Franco Spain, where a young pacifist army deserter finds refuge with a wealthy man and his four voluptuous and seductive daughters. Two Much/Loco de Amor (1996) starred Antonio Banderas, Melanie Griffith and Daryl Hannah in an updated screwball comedy where con man Banderas beds both women by pretending to be two different men; the film got a lot of attention because of the off-camera sparks between Banderas and Griffith.
Trueba says it was the magic of improvisation–what Whitney Balliett called “the sound of surprise”–that Latin jazz ensnared him with twenty years ago. His fluidly dynamic camera work demonstrates just how thoroughly he understands and has internalized and formalized the technique into his cinematography. Shooting the performance footage in a historic environment (Sony, once Columbia, studios in midtown Manhattan) that is both easily controlled and sonic heaven, Trueba maxes out on sound and vision. Not only does he make sure we see how, for instance, Chucho Valdes’s huge hands careen up and down the keyboard, he cross-cuts shots avidly along the music’s flow. That way he can dart around the bandstand, alighting on each of the musicians at work, effectively re-creating the sense of conversational dialogue that underlies truly effective improvisation.
At least that’s the intellectual frame that, like a lot of good art, Latin jazz energetically bursts out of. Trueba replicates that process too, via the daring and exuberant elegance of much of his camera work. Take his characteristic languid pan that starts from Eliane Elias’s bare foot tapping against her piano pedals, moves up her leg, lingers briefly over her décolletage and focuses on her flashing virtuoso’s hands. Or the way his cameras bob and weave around Puente, his face a series of kinetic masks, as the timbales virtuoso capers around the stage: It’s as if they were dancing.
Though it’s more performance film than history, Calle 54 does serve up some backstory about the performers, suggesting the serpentine coils shaping both their own and their music’s development. Each musician gets a chapter, usually beginning wherever each calls home.
Puente, for instance, is shot in his City Island restaurant in the Bronx, where he tours the camera through the pictures of Latin jazz greats hanging on the wall–the closest the movie comes to formal genealogy. O’Farrill briefly recalls the postwar days when Dizzy Gillespie and Mario Bauza and Machito were formulating Cubop, or Afro-Cuban bebop, and he became the new music’s chief organizer and orchestrator. (In the studio, Trueba shoots O’Farrill and his big band in evocative black and white.) Chucho Valdes joins his father, Bebo, a virtuoso in his own right who performed with the likes of Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole at Havana’s famed Tropicana hotel in its heyday, for a wonderful, musically and emotionally charged duet; the episode also gives us a sidelong glimpse into the Cuban diaspora. (Bebo left his family and bolted the island when Castro took over, married a Scandinavian woman and has never returned; Chucho, who still lives there, leads the privileged life of the Cuban artistic elite and sees his father every few years when he’s touring.) Andy Gonzalez visits the nondescript South Bronx house where he and brother Jerry, still in high school, first conceived the Nuyorican-soul hybrid that powers their ironically named Fort Apache Band.
But it’s in the old Columbia studio that Calle 54 really delivers. Trueba’s cameras seem to be everywhere–lurking over drummers, swooping up and down at pianists, dancing around horn players. His eye is as active as the music and helps create the illusion that you’re moving in your seat–an illusion the music, with its emphasis on solo flights and fierce rhythms, demands. And to pump the adrenaline, the sterling sound puts viewers center stage. (The soundtrack CD is stellar.)
Calle 54 was released last fall to qualify for the Oscars. It didn’t get one, but its planned one-week run last October stretched to three, thanks to popular demand. Sources say that for its rerelease Miramax, its distributor, is relying largely on word of mouth to put it over. Calle 54 will surely get that in plenty, but in the post-Ken Burns world, it would be shortsighted not to flex some serious marketing muscle for this film. It wouldn’t take much to break this flick out of its expected niche.