directed by Fernando Trueba opens May 11 at Broadway Market
WHETHER FERNANDO TRUEBA likes it or not, almost no one who sees his Calle 54 will resist comparing it to Buena Vista Social Club. The comparison, however, is not one born entirely of laziness; indeed, the divergent takes on a similar subject illustrate the choices involved in making a picture about a primarily aural medium.
While the quality of the music in Buena Vista was certainly crucial to its success (sales figures for the soundtrack bear this out), much of its appeal stemmed from the redemptive tone of its narrative: forgotten musical legends are rediscovered before the camera. That context undoubtedly enhanced our enjoyment of the music itself. Calle 54 won't have the same broad appeal precisely because it lacks such a compelling story. Instead, there are brief biographical sketches introducing each featured performer and, with the exceptions of a comical reunion between Chucho and Bebo Vald鳠and an interview with irascible Gato Barbieri, these are neither interesting nor particularly useful. Voice-overs merely offer platitudes about the talents of the artist in question.
If it feels as though Belle Epoque director Trueba views these nonmusical interludes as obligatory filler, it's because he probably does. Otherwise, the close-ups of the musicians' hands, shots of their interaction, and spare monochromatic settings apply lovingly strict focus on the craft of making music. Musicians of any persuasion will especially appreciate this treatment, which should also resonate with more casual fans.
Whatever the limits of presentation, it's hard to resist the masterful performances by figures including Jerry Gonzᬥs, Tito Puente (still an exuberant showman shortly before his death), and Chucho Vald鳮 Given the emphasis of his film, though, and Trueba's stated desire to refute the growing perception of jazz being an academic music form, there's one element that's conspicuously absent—the interplay between musicians and a live audience. (Bert Stern's 1959 Jazz on a Summer's Day perfectly illustrates the power of this ingredient.) Calle 54 is a success, but if its performers hadn't been relegated to such sterile environments, that triumph might've been more emphatic.