A musical, historical and emotional odyssey spun around a blazingly popular Cuban vocal group of the ’60s, “Los Zafiros — Music From the Edge of Time” is an appealing mix of artistry, nostalgia and unspoken political overtones. Crowd-pleasing docu with bigscreen potential compares favorably with “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” in its account of terrific but little-known musicians who touched countless lives, sometimes at detriment to their own. Properly targeted, film could lead to a niche renaissance in record sales.
The vocal quartet-plus-guitarist, known as “the Cuban Platters,” all came from the same Havana neighborhood and were as big as the Beatles — “at least in Cuba,” as one observer puts it. Their unique blend of doo-wop, rumba, calypso, Bossa Nova, African beat and other rhythmic influences bursts forth in silky harmonies.
Plenty of sepia and ochre-toned archival footage shows off Los Zafiros’ matching suits and Motown-style moves. A runaway success on their own soil, Los Zafiros and their extremely well crafted (and, ironically, U.S.-influenced) pop represented post-revolutionary Cuba all over the globe. The group played Berlin in 1965 and shared a bill at Paris’ Olympia music hall with Peter, Paul & Mary just three months after the Fab Four graced the same stage.
The two oldest members are still living, separated by geography and circumstances. Group founder Miguel Cancio now lives in the U.S.: Los Zafiros — literally, the Sapphires — were named after Miguel’s lucky sapphire ring, which he bought from a drunk for 25 pesos. Guitarist Manuel Galban has represented Cuba all over the world and been on tour 93 times. The two men enjoy an emotional reunion on-camera in Havana. (Pic was shot in late 2001.)
Contempo interviews with a range of family members, vet eyewitnesses and music specialists imply there was considerable emotional fallout involved in embodying a specific time and place as hot performers during the Cold War. Docu brims with instructive insight into Cuban composers and arrangers.
When the freshly reunited Manuel and Miguel start performing in the street, backed by younger musicians who keep the Los Zafiros repertoire alive, the joy and unpretentiousness is infectious. It’s as if Paul and Ringo started playing with a Beatles cover band on a Liverpool street for whomever happened by.
Film does a good job of bringing novice viewers up to speed on 20th-century Cuban history, both political and musical, without being didactic. Never shying from emotional material, final reel tips into the homemovie realm a few times in sequences that will be of greatest interest to established followers of the original group.
Tech credits are fine, and music tops.