An engaging, warm-hearted look at tango music as enjoyed by everyday Argentineans, Alejandro Saderman’s feelgood “The Last Bandoneon” teems with good music, stories and people. Helmer hauled his camera round the backstreets of Buenos Aires in search of what tango means and came up with the roundly affirmative answer that, at least for the enthusiasts who people this docu, it is their life-blood. More like the historic “Buena Vista Social Club” than the rarefied aesthetics of Carlos Saura’s “Tango,” pic deserves fest exposure at the least, while its human base could find it dancing into selected offshore arthouses.
Shy accordion-player, street musician and single mother Marina (the bandoneon is a small accordion particularly associated with tango) auditions for a new tango orchestra being assembled by famed composer and accordionist Rodolfo Mederos. Marina’s playing is fine, but Mederos tells her to replace her battered old bandoneon — specifically with a Double A, the accordion equivalent of the Stradivarius. This is easier said than done — no new Double A’s have been made since the start of World War II.
The people that Marina meets in her search are the substance of docu. These include a group of older men (Gabriel Clausi, Marcos Madrigal, Luis Masturini, Miguel Mastantuono and Luis Anibal) who meet on Saturdays to offer their homage to the old maestros of tango (these seniors deserve a docu to themselves), and a Japanese man, a former ranchero singer, who buys bandoneons and sends them back home.
These characters and others, many from the golden age of tango in the ’30s and ’40s, are philosophers whose fascinating stories easily compensate for the slightness of the main narrative. A brief, passionate social, cultural and even technical history of tango emerges; meanwhile, Marina works in bars and plays a surreal punk gig to raise money, eventually buying the last bandoneon at an auction house.
Later, docu travels to Venezuela, where the greatest tango singer of them all, Carlos Gardel, died. But the best is saved till last, with the first concert by Mederos’ terrific tango orchestra, featuring a “Buena Vista”-style guest perf from the old cafe guys. This is heady, emotive fare that shows that tango is still very much alive as a cultural force.
Well-researched and sharply edited item occasionally looks a little contrived, as though the characters are delivering lines they have learned. For the record, pic features snatches of Japanese dialogue, not subtitled on the print caught.