A scene from 'Calle 54'
Courtesy Photo
"CALLE 54"
**1/2 stars 100 minutes | Rated: G
Opened: Friday, May 11, 2001
Directed by Fernando Trueba

Featuring Tito Puente, Eliane Elias, Chano Dominguez, Chico O'Farill, Jerry Gonzales, Gato Barbieri, Orlando Puntilla Rios, Carlos Patato Valdez, Michel Camilo, Paquito D'Rivera, Chucho Valdez, Bebo Valdez, Irael Chachoa Lopez, the Fort Apache Band


Might be interesting to see once. But I'd rather buy the sountrack.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 11.13.2001

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Latin Jazz docu 'Calle 54' captures music of living legends, but dull style makes it for aficionados only

By Rob Blackwelder

"In the late '80s a friend gave me a record that completed my life. It got me hooked on Latin Jazz."

Director Fernando Trueba speaks these words in the opening moments of "Calle 54," his Spanish language documentary that captures sublime performances of many of the music genre's greatest living legends.

A love letter to the smooth brass, sonorously liquid bass, lissome keyboarding and potent drum beats that make up this soothing, harmonious, mellifluous musical form, this film is simply and admirably an attempt by Trueba ("Belle Epoque") to create a resounding historical record.

In sparse but colorful soundstage performances so uniformly dazzling that the music permeates your body and makes you go limp right there in the theater, the film captures the spirits of instrumentalists like piano players Chano Dominguez, Eliane Elias and Bebo and Chucho Valdez, conductor Chico O'Farill, saxophonists Gato Barbieri and Paquito D'Rivera, composer and pianist Michel Camilo, bassist "Chachoa" Lopez, the Fort Apache Band, Tito Puente, and half a dozen others whose names aficionados will instantly recognize.

But because of Trueba's film is so structurally and visually repetitive, aficionados are likely the only people who won't find the film growing tiresome despite the great music.

Each vignette is introduced with two or three minutes of rather random, candid establishing footage shot on digital video. The director apparently followed each of these musicians around for quite a while both in New York (where the sessions were filmed) and in each of their native lands, wherever they may be. Even though they do serve their purpose of establishing the personalities of the players, the scenes that made it to the film contribute little else. No insights into the music that these people play are forthcoming in these episodes.

The recording sessions themselves seem dynamic at first, with SteadiCam shots floating around the musicians as they play their hearts out. But by the 10th time the camera goes through the same motions on the 10th band being recorded, everything but the wonderful music has become monotonous.

Still, if the sound system is good in the theater, after every performance you'll want to give a standing ovation. But this is not a film for the uninitiated. If the list of names in paragraph three means something to you, then "Calle 54" is absolutely worth the price of admission. If you recognized no one but Tito Puente, "Calle 54" probably isn't for you -- if only because it becomes such a clock-watcher that by the fourth reel it's an effort to keep listening. Print out this review and take it to your record store, look these guys up and buy a few CDs instead of seeing the movie. By the time it comes out on video, you'll be ready.


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