Since 1999’s fabled Latin pop explosion, our understanding of la música has been framed by media gatekeeping: Ricky Martin becomes the emblem of ambiguous vida-loca sexuality; the late Tito Puente, the father of all possible Nuyorican beats; the Buena Vista Social Club, the poster boys of embargo-busting. But many crucial figures of the genre, having struggled to endow Latin music with the artistic merit of North American jazz, remain obscured by hype. Fernando Trueba’s documentary Calle 54 clarifies matters—it is a dazzling, long-overdue tribute to the true stars of Latin music.
Trueba got the idea for the film when he was shooting the Latin jazz-jam finale for Two Much, a rather vacant mid-’90s Antonio Banderas romantic comedy designed to break the director out of his native Spain. In Calle 54, he indulges his passion for the music, capturing exhilarating, once-in-a-lifetime performances. Although Trueba is fond of Wim Wenders-style floating-p.o.v. slow pans, don’t expect Buena Vista Social Club‘s intimate narrative here. When Gato Barbieri reminisces about old filmmaking friends like Glauber Rocha, Rossellini, and Godard, it’s one of the few times the musicians reveal anything personal. For the most part Trueba lets them speak only through their performances, often bathed in primary colors in neutral studio settings. The technique works best when Jerry González of the overlooked Fort Apache Band seems to burst into red flames during a flügelhorn solo and Tito Puente’s all-star configuration shimmers in spiritual white outfits. Trueba uses a dark blue tint, reminiscent of Bertrand Tavernier’s smoky jazz café opus, ‘Round Midnight, when the father and son Bebo and Chucho Valdés engage in a piano duet that serves as an emotional reunion.
The focus on performance limits Calle 54, which misses a great opportunity to elaborate on the essentials of Latin music and its history. A couple of the 12 artists could have been sacrificed to expand the film’s narrative and make it more accessible to the casual viewer. But Trueba was extremely astute in his choice of musicians, and for the hardcore Latin jazz fan, Calle 54 is a scintillating treat of the highest order.