Lovers of Latin jazz will have a ball with “Calle 54.” In the tradition of “Buena Vista Social Club,” to which it inevitably will be compared, docu celebrates the music of amazing musicians, some of them elderly. But taking only a cursory look at the lives of the players, Fernando Trueba’s film lacks the human insights of Wim Wenders’ pic, suggesting that it may not have the crossover appeal of the earlier film. Nonetheless, the film should reinforce worldwide interest in this vibrant music, will rack up sensational CD sales and be jumping for many years in ancillary.
Trueba, who narrates, notes that he discovered Latin jazz in the early ’80s when a friend gave him a copy of “Blowin’,” Paquito D’Rivera’s first American album. He used the genre for the score of his English-lingo pic “Two Much.” In “Calle 54,” he is obviously having a great time with musicians he admires.
Format of the pic is to intro the performers in the cities where they reside, in most cases New York, though we meet piano player Chucho Valdes in Havana, while his father, Bebo Valdes, has lived for many years in Stockholm, where he married a local woman 37 years ago.
After these brief introductions, in which a few of the musicians get to say a little bit about themselves, the music takes over. Each performer was filmed and recorded under the finest conditions at the Sony Music Studios in New York.
First is D’Rivera, son of the legendary Tito Rivera, whose trumpet and clarinet playing are featured in the rousing “Panamericana.” In a nice touch, D’Rivera mentions that “the best present my father gave me was my mother,” and we see her, briefly.
Pic features a dozen musical numbers by as many performers. Highlight is the great contribution of the late Tito Puente, first seen at his bar talking fondly about the jazz greats he knew, including Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. Playing the kettledrum and conducting his small group of musicians as they play “New Arrival,” Puente, with his shock of white hair and his facial expressions evoking the wondrous innocence of Harpo Marx, performs with humor and elegance.
Another standout is the reunion of father Bebo Valdes and son Chucho, who had not seen each other in some time. On two pianos, they improvise “La Comparsa” with tremendous skill and affection.
Jerry Gonzalez and his Fort Apache Band belt out “Earth Dance,” while Gato Barbieri, the tenor sax player known to film buffs for composing the score of “Last Tango in Paris,” performs “Introduction Llamerito y Tango Bolivia.” Elegant jazz pianist Eliane Elias glides through “Samba Triste.” Elderly Chico O’Farrill, who worked with big bands in the ’40s, conducts a group of talented musicians playing “Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite.”
All the musical numbers are beautifully filmed by d.p. Jose Luis Lopez-Linares and his crew, and recorded by Pierre and Martin Gamet. Pic looks and sounds wonderful, and while more information about these giants of African-Latin music might have been welcome, the music’s the thing.