Calle 54
directed by Fernando Trueba
(Miramax, 2000)

In the early '80s, someone gave director Fernando Trueba a record that, he says, complicated his life. Last year, Trueba was kind enough to pass the complications along.

Calle 54 is a documentary like no other and a concert film like no other.

It's like no other documentary because it has very little to say: a quick clip of each of a dozen or so artists in his or her home or studio, followed by a few words about their art, influence or background. And it's like no other concert film because its performers -- a series of Latin jazz artists -- aren't playing real venues; they're on sound stages or in studios, artfully lighted and color-coordinated with their backdrops, which are often single-hued blurs.

The technique is an interesting one because it allows Trueba to concentrate on his subjects: Latin jazz and the people who make it, starting with saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera and running through a who's who of performers, including the great Tito Puente.

Trueba's choice of style pays off as it allows his camera to weave almost voyeuristically between the players, catching them signaling one another and sharing in small moments of musical triumph: stuff audiences rarely see, or rarely see from optimal angles or for extended periods.

It works especially well with larger bands, like D'Rivera's, which employs vibes, trumpet, guitar and more drums than you can shake a stick at, and with Chano Dominguez, a pianist who's fused flamenco into his jazz stylings, and Michael Camilo, a classical as well as jazz pianist who conducts as well as plays.

The low-key context of Dominguez's piano work quickly gives way to hypnotic cross-cutting between the pianist's fingers and the furious feet of a nearby flamenco dancer; in Camilo's case, it's the smashing climax that leaves a lasting impression, on eyes a well as ears.

There are moments of humor as well, mostly in trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez's somewhat syncopated musings on jazz or in Puente's performance on drums and assorted percussive paraphernalia. Puente is almost as much fun to watch as he is to listen to, and he stands as a permanent reminder of just how much fun there is in this most serious business.

Granted, Trueba takes some liberties he probably shouldn't have: his sudden shift to black and white for a segment with Chico O'Farrill's big band is a distraction viewers don't need. And at some point, the idea of having performers play in front of single-hued backdrops becomes a distraction in itself. At these points, it's best to close your eyes and just listen to what it is that complicated Trueba's life in the first place.

But for longtime fans who can appreciate Bebo Valdes and his son, Chucho, smiling at each other across the broad expanse of two grand pianos, or the haunting call-and-response work between the elder Valdes and bassist Israel Lopez "Cachao," Calle 54 is the greatness of Latin jazz carved in stone and transferred to film and video. And for those standing just outside the cantina door thinking it sounds pretty good in there, it's an enticing come-on guaranteed to top even the most awesome infomercial.

Best of all, it's a documentary that leaves you shouting for more. Imagine that, if you can.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]
Rambles: 11 October 2002

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