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Seeing Music and the Challenges of Filming Jazz: The Exceptional Case of 'Calle 54'

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Fernando Trueba's 'Calle 54' raises provocative questions about jazz movies and the challenges facing the creative filmmaker.
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Fernando Trueba
Calle 54
Miramax
2001



In an era in which the visual media have increasingly come to overshadow both audio and textual forms, Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba's Calle 54 raises provocative questions about jazz movies and the challenges facing the creative filmmaker. It is, undoubtedly, a must-see/must-hear movie for casual fans, enthusiasts, aficionados and scholars of Latino musical culture, reminding us that it's as much fun to watch musicians as to listen to them. On the other hand, while a jazz audio recording is at least theoretically capable of achieving a consensus "well done, the various critiques received by Calle 54 point to the near-impossibility of a unamimous decision with a jazz film (versus the comparatively straightforward jazz video).

Concert videos such as Keith Jarrett's Tokyo Live are not so problematic, as they are generally more modest in their ambitions. From a cinematic perspective, such videos tend to be self- effacing. With the relatively uncomplicated goal of capturing a musical performance (or series of performances), they usually strive to get out of the way and let the music speak for itself without drawing undue attention to the medium itself. Whether chronicling a concert or a recording session, by and large they give the viewer the sense of being an unobtrusive observer, not its primary audience.

This same attention to unobtrusiveness distinguishes documentaries like Jazz on a Summer's Day or Buena Vista Social Club (another ambitious attempt to capture Latino musical culture with a camera) from movies like Bird or 'Round Midnight. In contrast to the video or the documentary, comparatively subservient genres that set out to record performances and performers, a movie is expected to tell a story, and often does so by taking artistic liberties with the facts.

There are other aesthetic questions raised by film narratives about jazz, mixing as they do these two separate art forms—a mixture made particularly problematic by the improvisational nature of jazz versus other musical genres like rock or pop, which tend to be both more scripted and overtly camera-driven. Trueba himself acknowledges this implicit tension between the spontaneous and the rehearsed.

Movie directors are notorious perfectionists, and Trueba admits he had to reconcile himself to the inherent artistic flaws—cinematic, not musical—that would inevitably result. There are many instances in which a film, after advance screenings, has been re-shot, re- edited and even re-written (when was the last time anyone heard of a jazz album being re-recorded to placate an unfavorable early reception?).

By their very nature, movies (as distinguished from documentary films, or music videos) are rarely aimed at capturing the moment fresh-minted and unedited, but are instead staged, scripted and heavily-edited narrative constructions. Trueba's cameras (all six of them) did not just happen to be at Sony Music's 54th Street studios when the musicians dropped in: the players are decked out in dressy stage clothes, not the jeans and t-shirts one would ordinarily see at a recording session.

Thirteen musical performances are literally staged for the camera, complete with color-themed set designs. There is no shaky hand-held camera work here: sophisticated tracking shots, unusual close-ups, and bird's-eye vantages accomplish Trueba's stated intention of taking the viewer "inside the band.

But more to the point here is the aforementioned narrative impulse—seen by some movie directors as a license, by others as a positive obligation. When a filmmaker like Trueba—known for eccentric projects like Opera Prima (1980), Twisted Obsession (1990), and Belle Époque (1992) —sets out to make a movie rather a pure documentary, he is much like a newspaper reporter moving from the realm of reportage to that of editorializing.

However, in the case of a movie about music and musicians like Calle 54, his work will inevitably be judged by two different and not altogether compatible standards: that of the cinema buff and that of the music enthusiast. The urge to tell his audience about something he loves (or hates), rather than simply to present it to them, to deliberately and self-consciously impose a narrative on his subject, can end up being a sword that cuts both ways. And therein lies the rub: as two different reviews of the movie demonstrate, the filmmaker is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't.

One reviewer of Calle 54 on Amazon was particularly strident, asking "what idiot destroyed a first-rate jazz film with incessant narration? This name-calling was accompanied by the somewhat overwrought declaration that this addition constituted a "scandal and a sacrilege, with the insistence that "this product should be removed from the market. (This particular reviewer evidently has anointed himself a one-man Arbiter of Public Standards, jazz division, having also declared that a recent film about Louis Armstrong, King of Jazz (2006), is so error-ridden that it "should be removed from any responsible dealer's inventory...without delay! ).

Speaking as a survivor of 11 years of Catholic school, I confess this draconian call to action evoked for me not only George Orwell's Big Brother but the Vatican's Index Librorum Prohibitorum ("List of Prohibited Books ), aimed at preventing the corruption of the faithful by shielding them from "erroneous works. Apparently, this reviewer presumes that while he is astute enough to separate fact from fiction, others not so discerning (like myself) stand in need of pre-emptive protection.

But actually more puzzling is the complaint about the "incessant narration, particularly when compared to another reviewer's objection that "there is very little storytelling to link the musical pieces. In contrast, this second reviewer points to an untapped wealth of musical history and complains that one can enjoy the music while still troubled by "the feeling that something's missing, bemoaning the missed opportunity to preserve interviews with these "icons of Latin music, some of them in their last years. (Tito Puente passed away only two months after the film was shot, and Chico O'Farrill died the following year).

In both cases, I can't help wondering to what DVD these two individuals were referring. It's understandable why many would find the running commentary from associate producer/ music historian Nat Chediak annoying. Being a voice-over, it can feel every bit as intrusive as someone who won't keep quiet while you're listening to a record (or, ironically, someone in a theater who won't keep still while you're watching a movie). However, the menu selection I encountered not only gave the option of viewing the film with or without Chediak's narration, it provided a further choice of hearing it in either English or Spanish—a "bonus" that might not be so annoying after one has heard the music a few times. Additionally, along with biographies and discographies of the featured musicians, there is an hour-long documentary on the history of Latin jazz, which not only contains interviews chockfull of reminiscences, but a fascinating examination of the social, cultural, ethnic and even linguistic history of Latin jazz.

The knowledge of their musical heritage displayed by these musicians, young and not-so-young, is every bit as impressive as their musical talent. For example, Bebo Valdés contributes a very enlightening historical explanation for the presence of the French- derived canzon in Cuban music. "In 1803 or 4, he says, "the Haitian Revolution liberated them from the French. The rich families that lived in Port-au-Prince came to Santiago de Cuba. It's the closest place. They brought with them their type of sinquillo and contradanza.

His son Chucho, on the other hand, notes how overly broad and imprecise it is to simply speak of Cuban music's African roots, pointing out that that the Nigerian religion, Santeria (and its accompanying musical forms), has nothing to do with Palo, the Congolese religion and music. These very distinct cultures, as well the Portajumé tradition of the Aburas, all came together in Cuba, as he notes.

Chucho also discusses the clavé, which refers to both a simple percussion instrument and a complex range of five-beat rhythmic figures—the "compass of Afro-Cuban music, in his words. Picking up on this same topic, Andy González insists on the point (now suddenly timely) that the recently-deceased James Brown employed the clavé, using "Cold Sweat to illustrate his assertion. He goes on to trace an Afro- Cuban musical lineage: habanera to contradanza to danzón to son to conga to mambo to chachachá. Elaine Elias chimes in with some Brazilian genealogy: the bossa nova came from the combination of bebop and samba.

These reminiscences can be entertaining and thought-provoking as well as enlightening. Describing the lively, thoroughly eclectic New York music scene, which included rhythm and blues and rock'n'roll as well as jazz, Jerry González smilingly recalls an Irish wedding gig at which he played "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling —mambo style!

Jerry's brother Andy, while strolling around the rough Bronx neighborhood in which he grew up, recounts an occasion when he was coming to a recording session at the storied Alegre Records studio at 2 a.m. After getting off the train with his bass, he encountered two junkies who chased him with the aim of stealing his instrument.

No movie would be complete without an ironic twist, and Trueba gives us one here. The González brothers' Fort Apache Band takes its name from the grim nickname given to this primarily Puerto Rican community by the police who patrolled it after a violent confrontation between them and local residents. This episode—only one of an ongoing series of infamous clashes between "New York's Finest and the Big Apple's minority residents, confrontations which continue even to the present day— was immortalized in the 1981 movie Fort Apache the Bronx (starring Paul Newman and Edward Asner) ... as the cinematiste Trueba very well knows. So, there is an inherent if subtle reversal when Andy recounts running down the stairs from the station to street level, where a police car fortuitously happened to be parked. "The junkies saw them ... and I was rescued, recalls González with a smile.

Other musicians demonstrate the same diverse-minded eclecticism as the brothers González and make similar observations. Chano Dominguez suggests that Monk and Coltrane were both very "flamenco-ish," especially in their use of that form's trademark "kill. Pianist Michel Camilo asserts that Tabito Vásquez was the Dominican Charlie Parker. And Jerry González draws the following interesting set of parallels between North American and Latino jazz musicians: El Chapotin/Louis Armstrong, Peruchin/Art Tatum, Graciela/Billie Holiday, Elena Burke/Sarah Vaughn.

"In my day, we used to record 'instrumental mambos,'" says Tito Puente, seen waxing nostalgic at a table in his eponymously-named restaurant with Andy González and Carlos Valdés. "Now they call it 'Latin jazz.' Paquito D'Rivera also discusses what he calls the "semantics of the term, pointing out that many Hispanic musicians initially rejected the adjective "Latin because it was seen as including the French and Italians. Noting that Duke Ellington rejected the term jazz, Trueba holds that the term salsa is "absurd, pointing instead to "Cubop as a more authentic label.

Camilo elaborates on the cross-pollination between musicians in Havana and New Orleans that resulted in the so-called "Latin Tinge found in ragtime music, notably that of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton. Chico O'Farrill tells the story of how Charlie Parker wound up getting a last- minute call to record "Afro-Cuban Suite and the amazing rapidity with which Bird intuitively grasped the composition.

Continuing with the story within the story, the history of Latin jazz along with the "present" narrative of the Latin emigrant musicians who coalesce at the recording studio at Calle 54, Puente explains how Dizzy Gillespie came to be so influential in the rise of Latin jazz: Mario Bauzá, the acknowledged "Father of Latin Jazz was hired by Cab Calloway to conduct his band, which included the youthful Gillespie, who thus became acquainted with Chano Pozo. Jerry González recounts that it was Gillespie who gave him his first big break. When Gillespie telephoned him, González intially thought the call was a prank being played on him by friends, but the request—to come down to Washington, D.C. the next day to play percussion—proved genuine, resulting in a gig that lasted two years.

But worthwhile as these asides may be—as the history of transplanted Latin artists and their music or simply as colorful and fascinating digressions—the real reward of Calle 54—like seeing a concert in person—is the chance to watch the performers in the act of making music as captured not by a videographer-craftsman but a genuine film auteur.

Tito Puente was a thorough-going showman never reluctant to ham it up, and here he delights, as usual, in mugging for the camera. This rendition of Hilton Ruiz's "New Arrival" was, as it turned out, one of his very last performances.

Dominican keyboardist Michel Camilo flashes a toothy boyish grin while leading his trio through a breakneck "From Within" with its merengue/pambiche flavor. This is another instance in which film adds a second dimension of pleasure to the music, as we watch Camilo's lightning-quick hands literally blur like hummingbird wings. Rarely, if ever, has musician and instrument be captured with more compelling drama not to mention aesthetic wholeness due to the camera's active role as a fourth albeit invisible player.

Cuban alto saxophonist/clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera's aptly-named "Panamerica" suite features the Argentinean tango, the Venezuelan joropo, and the Brazilian bossa nova. Sao Paulo-born pianist Eliane Elias delivers a trio update of Baden Powell's "Samba Triste," performed with the signature effortless swing for which Brazilian music is known. Argentinean tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri displays his usual grand if not grandiose theatrical style, both before and during his ode to Buenos Aires and the Andes, "Introducción, Llamerito y Tango/Bolivia." His self-representation as practically the savior of modern music Trueba allows to go without further commentary, ironic or otherwise, leaving the spectator to ponder the credibility of the statement along with its source.

Percussionist Orlando "Puntilla" Rios and his Nueva Generacion ensemble—with special guest conguero Carlos "Patato Valdes—perform a guaguanco/guarapchangeo/rumba titled "Compa Gallentano." Both this song and "Oye Como Viene by Spanish pianist Chano Dominguez, who has engineered a virtually seamless blend of jazz and flamenco, are accompanied by dancers, an intrinsic element of their respective genres that obviously cannot be conveyed by an audio recording and only poorly by a video record.

Bandleader-arranger Chico O'Farrill's conducts an abbreviated "Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite," a prime example of the musical marriage of Havana and Harlem. Flugelhornist/conguero Jerry González and his Fort Apache Band with brother Andy give "Earth Dance" a sleek, urban finish.

Trueba saves his denouement for the tender, emotionally-charged conclusion of the film, which climaxes with the reconciliation of Odysseus and Telemachus after a spell-binding musical odyssey. Prior to this stirring moment, "Caridad Amaro," showcases Chucho Valdés, sometimes called the "Art Tatum of the Antilles." Later, Valdés' father, Bebo, records for the first time with the legendary bass innovator Israel "Cachao" Lopez in the intimate duet, "Lagrimas Negras."

Many feel that any movie worth watching has to have a love scene, which is how Trueba describes Calle 54's final "chapter : a father-son reunion in Stockholm between the long-separated Bebo and Chuco. The result is a beautifully heartfelt duet version of Ernesto Lecuona's "La Comparsa," an episode that poignantly illustrates the enhancement brought to the performance by the added visual dimension. While the record brings us the soulful music, only film can show us the two men trading heartfelt glances as well as gorgeous musical phrases.

The film has plenty of other luminaries, from both north and south of the border, in supporting roles. Along with Chico O'Farrill's son Arturo, there are also cameo appearances by Dave Valentin, Marc Johnson, Diego Urcola, Dave Samuels, and Joe Ford.

For all his attention to the visual element, Trueba does not forget that his movie is about music, first and foremost, and the sound quality is superb. One critic went so far as to assert that the true (albeit unacknowledged) star of the movie is the Steinway grand piano, which has rarely been as well-recorded on film as it is here. In fact, in this singular and true "film" about music, it might be more accurate to credit the creative director less for recording than "constructing" both the instrument and its stunning power.


Tracks: Panamericana; Samba Triste; Oye Como Viene; Earth Dance; From Within; Introducción, Llamerito Y Tango/Bolivia; New Arrival; Caridad Amaro; Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite; Lagrimas Negras; Compa Galletano; La Comparsa.



Personnel: Paquito D'Rivera: alto saxophone, clarinet; Eliane Elias: piano; Chano Dominguez: piano; Jerry González: flugelhorn, congas; Michel Camilo: piano; Gato Barbieri: tenor saxophone; Tito Puente: timbales, vibraphone; Chucho Valdés: piano; Chico O'Farrill: conductor; Bebo Valdés: piano; Israel "Cachao Lopez: bass; Orlando "Puntilla Rios: congas, vocals; Carlos "Patato Valdés: congas.



Production Notes: 105 minutes. Filmed at Sony Music Studios, 54th Street, New York City; additional footage filmed in Stockholm, Sweden; Havana, Cuba; San Juan, Puerto Rico and Cadiz, Spain. Extras: commentary by associate producer and Latin jazz historian Nat Chediak; documentary on the history of Latin jazz (60 minutes); musician biographies and discographies; theatrical trailer.

Style: Latin/World


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