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With: Tito Puente, Paquito D'Rivera, Eliane Elias, Chico O'Farrill, Gato Barbieri, Israel Lopez 'Cachao'
Written by: Fernando Trueba
Directed by: Fernando Trueba
MPAA Rating: G
Language: Spanish, with English subtitles
Running Time: 105
Date: 09/08/2000

Calle 54 (2001)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Satin Jazz

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Let's get this out of the way right now. I was pretty blown away by Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club (1999), and everything I've heard about the new Calle 54 compares it to that film. So for nearly every frame of Calle 54, I was thinking about how it measured up. And it doesn't ... not quite.

Directed by Fernando Trueba and featured at the recent San Francisco International Film Festival, Calle 54 is a celebration of Latin Jazz, a type of music Trueba discovered while working on his film Two Much (1996), starring Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith, which flopped hard here in the U.S. but was a huge hit in Latin America. The directorial style is pretty consistent with the man who made Two Much, whereas Buena Vista Social Club director Wenders has made classics of world cinema such as Wings of Desire (1988) and Paris, Texas (1984).

To that end, Trueba films the Calle 54 musicians in lots of close-ups and shots lasting no more than 5 seconds, though he does provide a healthy mix of both faces and instruments. His segments seem like the most rudimentary music videos. Wenders, on the other hand, invented dizzyingly lovely and lingering shots: a camera swirling around the faces of a man and a woman singing a passionate duet, a performing pianist surrounded by children in an old church.

In Wenders' film, we had time to get to know the musicians a little through the central character of Ry Cooder. In Calle 54, we're treated to a dozen different songs played by different groups of musicians, separated only by the briefest of introductions, and we can barely remember them. It doesn't help that the musicians are identified with titles like "the father of Latin jazz" or "the architect of Latin jazz."

Another element Calle 54 lacks is passion. I can't critique the music itself, but these musicians seem to play like it's a job, like they're checking their watches between licks. Few people ever smile, and only percussionist Tito Puente seems to be having a good time. When I saw Charlotte Zwerin's 1988 documentary Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser recently, I was floored by Monk's style of playing, living in the moment, feeling and inventing as he went along. The music in Calle 54 seems more practiced and polished.

Yet, the moments are there. They sneak up on you. A bass player named Anthony Jackson seems to get lost in his music from time to time. A lovely pianist named Eliane Elias works the foot pedals in her bare feet. A background player wipes the sweat off his brow. A few jams climb to the heavens and grow slightly out of control, and a few short snippets of songs suddenly turn so beautiful you ache for them.

The fact is that Calle 54 doesn't need to live up to Buena Vista Social Club. They're two different movies. If you watch with your sensors switched on, you can feel it when Calle 54 turns real, even if it's just for a few moments here and there. And a few moments of truth in any movie is a rare thing. One musician talks about making music for films by directors such as Glauber Rocha, Jean-Luc Godard and Roberto Rossellini. He complains that today they don't make films like that anymore. They sure don't. At least not this time.

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