Calle 54
review by Dan Lybarger, 8 June 2001

Sometimes it takes a flop to lead a filmmaker to something more rewarding. When Spanish director Fernando Rodríguez Trueba (Belle Époque) was working on his stateside debut, Two Much, he incorporated Latin jazz in the soundtrack. Gradually, he sought to do more with the music, and Calle 54 is the frequently happy result.

An engaging sampler of Latin jazz and its permutations, the film features a variety of well-shot and edited live performance clips, all of which were shot and recorded in a studio on 54th street in New York. For beginners, Calle 54 introduces viewers to several of the prominent names in the genre including the late Mambo King Tito Puente and Gato Barbieri, who composed the score for Last Tango in Paris. For connoisseurs, he offers the rare treat by setting up the first and possibly only duet to be played by two of the giants, pianist Bebo Valdés and bassist Cachao. Despite their advanced ages and mutual fame, the two had never played together before.

The idea of simply watching musicians play, without the aid of MTV-like gimmicks may seem like a dull idea for some, but Trueba has picked a lineup of players whose performance styles are oddly photogenic. Valdés’s son, Chucho, is a towering, burly man whose delicate piano playing contrasts his hulking size. Trueba’s camera follows Brazilian pianist Eliane Elías lovingly and gradually reveals that shoes are not part of her elegant attire (she operates the pedals with her bare feet). He also includes Chano Domínguez, whose music fuses Flamenco traditions with jazz and even brings some of the dancers with him into the studio. He also shows signs that making such sweet, funky sounds can be strenuous. Trumpeter Jerry Gonzales’s hands, like those of the percussionists, are covered in bandages, and a look of immense relief comes over his when his segment ends. Trueba’s graceful orchestration of the visuals is no small feat. Despite the improvisational and therefore unpredictable nature of the music, Trueba’s camera is always in the right place and the cutting from shot-to-shot moves seamlessly.

Comparisons between Calle 54 and Buena Vista Social Club, Wim Wenders’ look at veteran Cuban musicians, are inevitable. Both have great tunes and feature performers whose vitality belies their longevity. Shot on film, Calle 54 has more stylish images and more polish. The previous film, however, had a stronger narrative. Wenders’s film focused exclusively on a group of Cuban players who teamed up with American guitarist Ry Cooder and his son, drummer Joachim Cooder, Trueba’s movie collects musicians from around the globe. Some players like Puente and Gonzalez are Yanks, whereas others fly in from Europe to take part in the film. As a result, Calle 54 seems a diffuse between the performance segments. Wenders allowed a viewer to really know the musicians, especially singer Ibrahim Ferrer, and as a result their concluding concert in New York becomes poignant because we see all the struggles they have made to reach that point.

Trueba’s voiceover, on the other hand, is more enthusiastic than enlightening. His gushy comments are easy to tolerate because the quality of the sequences he has assembled backs them up. Whereas, the previous film gave a fairly vivid portrait of the societal forces that helped shape the music, Trueba, working with a broader subject matter offers mere hints. To be fair, these hints are often intriguing. Puente emphatically acknowledges the debt he and other Latin jazz musicians owe to beboppers Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Both he and Gonzales explain how Gillespie’s willingness to play with them helped establish their legitimacy. Gonzales also recalls how ethnic tensions in the Bronx led him to name his band “Fort Apache.” It’s also fun to listen to Barbieri and big bandleader Chico O'Farrill briefly recall their careers. An elaboration of any of these stories could make a good film in itself. Still, the disjointed flow is a worthy price for such a diverse selection of fine performances.

Written and
Directed by:

Fernando Trueba

G - General Audiences
All ages admitted.





  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.