"Crossover Dreams" takes one of the hoariest cliche's -- the artist struggling for recognition and success -- and sets it to the Latin pulse of salsa. What emerges is a low-budget, big-hearted snapshot of life in East Harlem and its vibrant musical subculture. The film, which opens today, lies somewhere between the energy of "Wild Style" and the commercial imperatives of "Beat Street," thus realizing crossover dreams of its own.
Rudy Veloz (portrayed by Panamanian salsa star Rube'n Blades) is a New Yorican musician trapped in the low-paying "chuchifrito" circuit of small salsa clubs that dot East Harlem. Rudy has Big Dreams of breaking out of the barrio with "music that I know could go a little further" and being assimilated (i.e., getting rich) in the pop (i.e., English-speaking) musical mainstream.
"I want everybody to come to my funeral when I die," he explains.
When his musical mentor, Cheo, dies, Rudy makes up his mind to escape what he sees as a creative dead end of traditional salsa. He manages to snag a recording contract by Anglicizing the Latin beat and singing in English and steps into the fast lane. But Rudy runs through money and chances with abandon: The record's a bust and so, quickly, is his career. Part of the slide is told through a clever montage that starts in the recording studio and ends in the cut-out bin.
Through a combination of ego and insensitivity, Rudy clumsily abandons his real friends. When his girlfriend Liz wonders if he's ever going to marry her, saying, "I have nothing but you, Rudy," he replies, "You're a very lucky person. Nobody deserves me but you." But not for long.
And as Rudy crosses over, he burns other bridges, firing Orlando, his longtime trumpet player, in order to use a "gringo" saxophonist. "Don't get sentimental now," Rudy counsels. "You'll get paid."
His own payoffs never come and the people that Rudy stepped on on his way up turn out to be the unsympathetic people he meets on his way back down. At one point a humbled Rudy slouches toward a life of drug-smuggling, but the upbeat coda (all of a minute long) promises a return to salsa roots and community.
Everything in director Leon Ichaso's film is so telescoped that the story itself seems more intrusion than exposition. "Crossover Dreams' " strong suits are the sympathetic touches that show Ichaso's understanding of barrio culture and Blades' experiences in the music business (they cowrote the script with Manuel Arce). There is more drama in the battle between musical generations and stylistic traditionalists than gets played out in the movie, but Ichaso is making an entrance, not a statement.
Blades, who started out in Willie Colon's band before establishing himself as one of the top salsa acts, makes his acting debut here. He is handsome and affectingly natural, coming across as a Latin Captain Beefheart, and playing Rudy as a self-absorbed tragi-comic hero who lives only for his music.
The supporting players are effectively used, particularly Elizabeth Pena as the jilted girlfriend, Shawn Elliot as Orlando and Tom Signorelli and Joel Diamond as a pair of less-than-forthright music mavens. Claudio Chea's cinematography captures both the bustle and the spaces of East Harlem, and salsa's swirl of polyrhythms and brassy accents give the film a decidedly vibrant edge.
Ironically, "Crossover Dreams" ends up playing it as safe as the salsa that Rudy rebels against, but as a slice of life, it's right on the beat.