“It’s really a film about friendship,” says Matt Dillon, about “The Great Fellove” [El Gran Fellove], his documentary chronicling the musical career of Cuban scat singer and showman Francisco ‘el Gran’ Fellove and the recording of his last album, “Fellove & Joey.”
“The whole thing started because of my friendship with bandleader Joey Altruda and our shared love of Cuban music,” says Dillon. “And then, it’s this wonderful story of how these Cuban musicians all took care of each other when they were all in exile in Mexico. That friendship between José Antonio Méndez and Fellove meant a lot to me.”
Academy-Award nominee Dillon’s second feature in the director’s chair played as a Special Screening at the San Sebastian Film Festival, where it received a rousing reception.
Dillon first started going to Cuba in the early ‘90s during a time of extreme poverty for the Caribbean country following the collapse of the Soviet Union. That era is now referred to as “the special period” because of the food rationing and medicine shortages as they adapted to the new world order. “I love the place,” says Dillon. “When I was young, my first real love was Cuban.”
It was on one of these trips to Cuba that he first came across a record by Fellove. Through a series of interviews, archival photos and videos, as well as new footage, “The Great Fellove” recounts Fellove’s life as a struggling musician in Cuba, his eventual success in exile in Mexico, and the contagious love he had for music until the very end.
Dillon shot much of the footage in 1999 when Altruda asked Dillon to come with him to Cuba and film him recording an album with the Cuban performer. “We just did it on the fly with a tiny group. At that time we were shooting on mini-cassette.”
Back in 1999, despite the success of Wim Wender’s Buena Vista Social Club, it was difficult to get people interested in making a film about a little known artist from Cuba, who was one of the founders of the “felin” movement. “It was a terrible time in the music business, what with CDs and whatnot,” Dillon tells Variety in the restaurant at the plush Hotel Maria Cristina.
The footage sat unused for almost 20 years as Dillon was unsure how to complete the film. “What I learned about documentaries, and it seems such an obvious thing, is that you can go back,” says Dillon. “It was when I went back all those years later with a different idea, that Fellove would be part of a bigger story about Cubans musicians, most of whom were part of the “felin” movement emigrating to Mexico.”
Dillon voices regret that Fellove died in 2013, during the long gestation period between filming and finishing the documentary, so the Cuban showman would never see this documentary celebrating his legacy.