Docu traces the history of <I>bachata</I>, the blues of Santa Domingo, through interviews and performances by its practitioners, especially Luis Vargas. Pic captures the spirit of the music and the nation that gave birth to it. Insularity of focus and catch-as-catch-can nature of the club and concert footage limit pic's appeal.

Tuneful, journeyman docu traces the history of bachata, the blues of Santa Domingo, through interviews and performances by its practitioners, especially the Supreme King of Bachata, Luis Vargas. Alternating between New York clubs by night and the colorful streets and countryside of Santa Domingo by day, pic captures the spirit of the music and the nation that gave birth to it. The liveliness of the performances and charm of the bachateros should assure docu a slot on Hispanic and music-oriented cable, but repetitiveness of themes, insularity of focus and catch-as-catch-can nature of the club and concert footage limit pic’s appeal.

Helmer Wolfe traces bachata from the 1950s to the present. Named for the patio parties where poor people would gather to drink and sing, bachata was a despised musical genre for decades, regarded with condescension because of its primitiveness (it used few, relatively simple instruments), unabashed emotionalism (like most blues, it lamented no-good women and lost loves) and setting (it was played in the most lowdown bars and brothels). One indomitable female bachatera (Arida Ventura), who sang of the faithlessness and uselessness of men, was blamed for the breakups of countless marriages.

Veteran Eladio Rodriguez Sanchos wryly runs down a whole glossary of derogatory terms applied to the music and its acolytes, and Vargas remembers having to take dates into the mountains because the girls didn’t want to be seen in public with a lowlife singer.

There’s a sense of wonder in the voice of Vargas and others as they tell how this ultimate form of good-for-nothing behavior suddenly became respectable and even quite lucrative in the ’80s and ’90s. Vargas proudly takes viewers on a tour of his new recording studio and nearby hotel, one of his gold or platinum records adorning the door of each room.

Unfortunately, Wolfe allows everyone to make the same point over and over again, while rarely including any reference to any other famously once-despised musical form, as if the fate of the bachata were somehow an anomaly in the annals of populist music.

It’s up to lone musicologist Luis Diaz to speak of how bachateros adapted local traditional drum rhythms to the guitar, which then developed among the hundreds of singers in the region and then, as they moved from bar to bar and town to town, throughout the countryside. A nationwide rural station further popularized the form.

Tech credits are adequate.

Santa Domingo Blues

Production

A Mambo Media production in association with Glasseye Pictures. Produced, directed, edited by Alex Wolfe. Written by Wolfe, Richard Fleming.

Crew

Camera (color, B&W, 16mm and DV), David Hocs, Israel Ramirez; sound, Fleming, Hocs. Reviewed at New York Latino Film Festival, July 24, 2003. Running time: 74 MIN.

With

Luis Vargas, Joan Soriano, Luis Diaz, Luis Segura, Eladio Rodriguez Santos, Jose Manuel Calderon, Arida Ventura, Railin Rodriguez, Ramon Cordero. (Spanish, English dialogue)
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