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CALLE 54 (G)
Miramax Films
Official Site
Director/Writer/Producer: Fernando Trueba
Cast: Gato Barbieri, Cachao, Michel Camilo, Paquito D'Rivera, Chano Dominguez, Eliane Elias, Jerry Gonzalez, Chico O'Farrill, Tito Puente, Orland "Puntilla" Rios, Bebo Valdes, Chucho Valdes

Rating: out of 5


CALLE 54 was created by Fernando Trueba as an adoring tribute to Latin Jazz. The movie is primarily comprised of musical performances by the genre musicians Trueba loves the most. Most of them are widely acknowledged as the greatest in the art form. The format is simple: There is a short bit of candid footage with a Latin Jazz star, followed by a five- to ten-minute in-studio concert by that musician. At first, I thought I wouldn't be able to take a full two hours' worth. The first few numbers, featuring Paquito D'Rivera, Eliane Elias, and Chano Dominguez, teetered dangerously close at times to what I call "Yuppie Jazz" (although I'm told some people like that stuff). But as the movie progressed, the numbers got hotter and hotter. Chucho Valdes never ceases to amaze me-he plays the piano like a hurricane. I had to fight the urge to applaud at the end of his solo number. Pianist Michel Camilo was new to me, but boy, he's hot stuff. I'm going to go get a recording by him as soon as possible. And Tito Puente may very well be the biggest ham in the history of music on film.

One strange thing about this film: the sound mix. It tended to favor the musician who was headlining the band-even at times when it wasn't appropriate. But that only barely detracts at a few odd times. Overall, the music is hot hot hot.

Don't look for this film to give any real understanding of the history or context of Latin Jazz, nor more than the briefest of glimpses into the lifestyles of these figures. This movie is purely about the music, and watching the musicians at work. It's a concert movie without the concert-there is no on-screen audience, just cameras. All of the music occurs within the antiseptic confines of a music studio.

The lighting and costumes are bright and varied; some numbers include hard-working dancers; the camera never stops moving. On many levels this works well. It's easy to sense Trueba's genuine passion for the material. And most of the performances are simply sublime; it's a treat to watch these people actually playing this incredible music. If great music's all you're looking for, then this movie is for you. But in some ways, the changing color schemes, the frenetic zooming and panning and craning and dollying camera work-it all seems like it's trying too hard to compensate for an inescapable... "studio-ness".

For the most part, I didn't feel like I was viewing a movie-I felt like I was listening to a CD. Or viewing a CD, perhaps; a bit of a synaesthetic experience. Anybody who enjoys watching musicians at their craft will enjoy this movie; being a professional musician myself, I am one of those people. But I'm not sure everybody is.

A few moments transcend these concerns. At one point, the late great Tito Puente takes the camera on a tour of his restaurant ("Tito Puente's") and genially talks about every figure featured on an enormous mural of Latin Jazz legends. And a musical reunion between famous father and son pianists Bebo and Chucho Valdes, while a bit disappointing musically-they both seemed a bit restrained, as if neither wanted to take the chance of showing up the other-nonetheless gave me a very happy feeling inside as I watched it.

As a visual document of great musicians doing what they do best, CALLE 54 soars. If that sounds like your cup of tea, I wholeheartedly recommend the film. If not, just buy the rockin' soundtrack instead.

-Quin Arbeitman

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

Itís worth a full-price ticket.

Itís worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...


Mike Doughty



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