French filmmaker Karim Dridi succumbs to the contagious rhythms of Latin America’s most musical isle in “Cuba Feliz.” Thriftily made with a skeletal crew and a simple concept, the film is billed as a musical road movie, which implies a more narrative-driven enterprise than this one. Not quite a documentary, it’s more like a musical travelogue that doesn’t quite sustain feature length and seems ideally suited to a shorter TV version for music webs. But given the popularity of Cuban music in the wake of “Buena Vista Social Club,” some minor theatrical play could follow.
While the screenplay is credited to Pascal Letellier and Dridi, the film’s brief exchanges of dialogue clearly are unscripted conversation. The only element approaching a narrative construct is the positioning of 76-year-old singer Miguel Del Morales, known as El Gallo (the Rooster), as a kind of wandering minstrel, who serves as the journey’s guide. That journey begins and ends as a dream of El Gallo’s as he surveys the traffic in Havana harbor.
Thumbing his way across the country with only his guitar for luggage, El Gallo travels through Santiago de Cuba, Guantanamo, Camaguey and Trinidad. He hooks up with old friends and meets new ones, joining them in song in their homes and in bars, on streets, courtyards and stairwells. Dridi successfully shows how music is an intrinsic part of Cuban culture and of the fabric of daily life. Scenes in which young rapper Juan jams with and draws inspiration from celebrated trumpet player Peppe Vaillant also point up how music eliminates many of the dividing lines between generations in Cuba.
But the project feels somewhat limited in scope for a feature, ultimately revealing little about the singers and musicians beyond their music and the pleasure they derive from it. That doubtless will be enough for many enthusiasts, given the range of styles heard here, from rap to improv jazz to boleros to salsas.
Shot by Dridi with one hand-held camera and recorded with a single microphone attached to a boom, the production is visually unremarkable. But its less-than-slick feel fits the loose, unfussy style of the operation, which seems like a throwaway vacation job in comparison to Dridi’s more ambitious features such as “Pigalle” and “Bye-Bye.” Audio quality of the music is surprisingly good, considering the modest technical means.