2000, G, 105 min. Directed by Fernando Trueba.
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., June 22, 2001
For those still wondering if anything good came out of the floppish 1996 screwball comedy Two Much (including the alliance of Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas), here's your answer: yes. That film's director, Fernando Trueba, returns to American screens with this robust jazz concert film, a project inspired by Two Much's concert finale, which united superstars from the world of Latin jazz with composer Michel Camilo. “I was filming the miracle of music,” Trueba says in one of the few moments of voiceover here, before launching into a series of performance scenes by individual artists (all sparingly staged at the Sony Studios on New York City's 54th Street) that give weight to such a bold remark. The technique on display is obviously impressive; in his performance of “From Within,” Camilo's fingers seem to move more quickly across the piano than Trueba's 24 frames per second will allow. But the real pleasure of Calle 54 is its warmth and intimacy, the sincere feeling of infectious joy shared by all the musicians in each session. In a segment filmed weeks before his death, master percussionist Puente sticks out his tongue playfully as he wails away on the vibraphone. Brazilian pianist Elías oozes cosmopolitan cool as she plays barefoot in the studio, and octogenarian Bebo Valdés joins longtime friend Israel “Cachao” López, another veteran of the Havana scene immortalized in Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club, for their first recording together. But the killer is Valdés' piano duet with son Chucho Valdés, whom he'd not seen for five years. (“You're as fat as a toad!” the elder Valdés chides when they meet.) The performance concludes with an embrace so poignant that the film crew breaks into applause. Trueba and cinematographer José Luis López Linares intercut these smoothly filmed scenes (often shot with a Steadicam) with brief interludes of hand-held candid footage showing the performers in their element: Puente in his restaurant in the Bronx, wizened bandleader Chico O'Farrill waxing contemplative on a cab ride to the legendary Birdland club, and tenor saxophonist Barbieri chatting up a draft horse yoked to a carriage. The transition between the two techniques can be jarring at times, and the use of nostalgic sepia stock for O'Farrill's performance sequence feels like a misfire, overstating the elegiac quality of the moment. Otherwise, the film is remarkably restrained; Trueba keeps the emotions on the screen and in the studio, not in the mouths of talking heads (except for one awkward montage explaining the African roots of the genre). The result is total immersion in the moment of the music, sure to send jazz fans over the moon. While the uninitiated won't find the same sort of historical exposition provided by intermediary Ry Cooder in Buena Vista Social Club (to which this effort has broadly been compared), they will find a world worth exploring.