With potential crowd-pleasers like Biggie & Tupac and Drumline topping the bill, this year’s Urbanworld Film Festival (through August 11 at Loews 34th Street) is front-loaded with high-profile, studio-distributed Behind the Music fare. Among its smaller, less-well-hyped entries is David Turnley’s black-and-white doc La Tropical, which works as an earthy corrective to The Buena Vista Social Club. As culturally engaged as Wim Wenders’s film was dilettantish, La Tropical focuses on performers and clients who frequent the working-class Havana dance hall of the title. Turnley deftly staggers fly-on-the-wall observations of his subjects’ home lives with languid song-and-dance footage, revealing something of the way in which issues of race, class, and politics are both confronted in and transcended by the clubgoers’ oft professed obsession with music.
Less expansive is Sam Lee and Danny Clinch’s Pleasure & Pain, a vanity-stoked hagiography of cult blues-folk-rock eclectophile Ben Harper. Enormously talented and egregiously self-involved, Harper espouses a half-baked New Age philosophy that, coupled with his fatherless upbringing, leads Deadhead-esque fans and the ShakyCam-reliant filmmakers to draw parallels to Jesus Christ. Scenes of his homecoming in dusty Pomona, California, are fascinating if only because he seems humbled (no mean feat) in the presence of his iconoclastic grandfather and mother.
Modesty prevails in Eric Eason’s shot-on-video Manito (also in the New York Latino fest), a slice of sub-Scorsesean ethnography that’s surprisingly effective. Eason and editor Kyle Henry do a lot with a little in this tale of two Washington Heights brothers struggling with the legacy of their absentee, drug-dealing dad. No Jesus comparisons are made.