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"CALLE 54"
(2000) (Tito Puente, Chucho Valdes) (G)

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QUICK TAKE:
Documentary/Concert Film: Various famous and talented musicians play their own styles of Latin jazz music.
PLOT:
Filmmaker Fernando Trueba explores the many facets of Latin jazz music by focusing on various generations of such musicians. Among those featured and filmed in studio performances around the world are Paquito D'Rivera and his band; pianist Eliane Elias; flamenco jazz stylist Chano Dominguez; trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez; pianist and film composer Michel Camilo; saxophonist Gato Barbieri; musical legend Tito Puente; father/son pianists Bebo and Chucho Valdes; and Afro-Cuban big band musician Chico O'Farrill.
OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
When making a documentary, there's a fine line upon which such filmmakers must constantly balance, and that involves how much they manipulate the content and/or inject their own personalities and beliefs into the proceedings. Since such directors often either have an ax to grind or are deeply in love or very interested in their subject matter, that's often an unavoidable "problem."

While often entertaining, such documentaries from the likes of Michael Moore ("Roger & Me," "The Big One") and others often go a bit too far in that manipulative direction, leaving the viewer with the nagging feeling that what they've seen may be as fabricated or manhandled as it is real.

Others, however, often go rather far in the other direction - for better or worse - letting the material stand on its own. Such is the case in director Fernando Trueba's film, "Calle 54," a loving look at Latin jazz that pretty much lets the music speak for itself. Trueba, who was so inspired by the genre while scoring his 1995 film "Two Much" that he decided to devote an entire picture to it, only briefly introduces various jazz musicians before capturing their talented performances in studio based sessions.

While that may appease fans of artists such as Chucho Valdes, Eliane Elias and the legendary Tito Puente as they'd rather hear the music than redundant facts they already know, those of us not as familiar with the musicians would like to know a bit more about the music, those who perform it, and what makes them tick (as occurred a tiny bit more in "Buena Vista Social Club" that focused on Cuban music), but that doesn't occur here.

Accordingly, those familiar with VH1's terrific documentary series, "Behind the Music," or expecting something along the lines of that insightful and near all encompassing program will probably be somewhat disappointed by what the film has to offer. Beyond a few moments later in the picture, many of the musicians don't even speak, let alone give interviews, and there's only a bare bones amount of biographical information given about any of them.

Instead, Trueba ("The Girl of Your Dreams," "Belle Epoque") has put his trust solely in the music, and for the most part that works (and does so better than in "BVSC"), particularly once you accept that this isn't going to be your typical documentary style history lesson. Those who enjoy the musical styling of Paquito D'Rivera, Gato Barbieri and Chico O'Farrill will no doubt enjoy seeing them performing and sounding terrific. Even casual listeners will have a hard time not enjoying the often complex sounding and clearly infectious music.

Of course, there are only so many ways to film a studio session and while Trueba keeps things lively enough with plenty of camera moves, close-ups and various editing tricks, one can easily appreciate the music just as well - and maybe even more - by closing their eyes and the letting the sounds carry them away.

Although purists will balk at such a notion, I believe that Trueba somewhat erred by not recording the performers in front of a live audience. While the logistics of doing so probably would have proved to be too daunting, the performances are missing some of that give and take energy that only an audience can provide, and the silence that follows them seemingly somewhat lessens their impact. I only noted one such instance of gracious applause - apparently from the crew and/or various onlookers - and it certainly filled in my need and urge to applaud the terrific work.

Nevertheless, and simply put, if you enjoy jazz and particularly its Latin-inspired musical arrangements, you'll probably be thoroughly tickled by what's offered here. Although you won't learn much about the performers or the music itself, there are enough varieties of it on display here, along with various highly enjoyable songs, that you'll be hard pressed to keep your feet and/or head from tapping and/or nodding along. As a traditional documentary, the film is lacking in information, but as a piece containing filmed performances, it is quite entertaining. "Calle 54" rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed May 7, 2000 / Posted May 11, 2001


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