There is an extraordinary collection of real-life characters, and a story told in brief vignettes, in glances, in the glimpse of a calloused hand. There is also music, plenty of music, great music. But to its director, Fernando Trueba, "Calle 54," a film about Latin jazz, is neither a documentary nor a concert movie.
"I believe it's a musical," Trueba said in a recent interview in Miami. "My idea from the beginning was to use the musicians and their instruments as the protagonists of a story and the songs like a script." It is not a musical in the usual sense of the word, he says, "a Broadway movie in which boy tells girl he loves her singing. I just feel this is a more cinematic kind of musical -- more abstract, given that there are no texts." For "Calle 54," Trueba -- whose credits include an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1992, for "Belle Epoque" -- shot 12 musical performances at the Sony Music Studios on 54th Street in New York. Each features one or more of the leading figures in Latin jazz, including Tito Puente (just 10 weeks before he died), Cuban arranger and bandleader Chico O'Farrill, Cuban father-and-son pianists Bebo and Chucho Valdes, Dominican pianist Michel Camilo, Cuban saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera and Argentine tenorman Leandro "Gato" Barbieri. Each tableau, beautifully photographed and impeccably recorded, is set to a different lighting scheme and mood.
It's a concept that evokes Carlos Saura's 1995 film "Flamenco," yet it never feels as stagy. Puente and his band, all dressed in white, are shown against a white background, Gap commercial style, making them appear somewhere between ghostly and angelic. Brazilian pianist Elaine Elias, barefoot in an elegant black dress, plays in a rich, dark, clublike setting. The irrepressible D'Rivera is all bright, warm colors, the Fort Apache Band blood-red.
As the music takes flight, Trueba's camera plays along, shadowing and anticipating the turns in the music, the changes in mood and intention. He relates his filmmaking style to jazz performance. "I never plan everything I'm going to shoot in my features," he says. "If I had to do it that way, I would stop making movies."
For "Calle 54," he adds, "I had prepared everything, I had explained [what shots I wanted] and given my instructions, but while the music was going on I went around talking to each one of the cameramen, changing things on the fly. I ran risks. All cameras were running risks. It was madness . . . but it also placed the film in solidarity with the musicians, in a parallel track."
The performances are astutely set up, and connected, by visual vignettes and brief off-camera narration by Trueba. Like Wim Wenders's "Buena Vista Social Club," the landmark documentary on traditional Cuban music filmed in Havana, "Calle 54" shines a spotlight on a style of music, and several musicians, in the shadows of mainstream culture.
But unlike Wenders, Trueba, a native of Spain who clearly admires and feels for these musicians, does not spend much time on personal stories or historical circumstances. There are no sociopolitical agendas to push here, no grand statements about Latin musicians and their struggles. Instead he establishes a broad, sketchy outline of Latin jazz history, now and then suggesting echoes and connections. When introducing Spanish pianist Chano Dominguez and his flamenco jazz, Trueba starts the sequence on a boat in the Port of Cadiz and closes it on a boat in the Port of New York. Puente, showing off a mural in his New York restaurant that depicts a pantheon of Latin jazz notables, points out each figure and gives a gracious summary of his or her contributions to the music.
Now and then, Trueba reflects on loss and pain, but he does so obliquely, subtly. Nothing needs to be added about the profound dislocation of exile after watching the incongruity of maestro Bebo Valdes, the quintessential Cubano, walking by a frozen-over sea in Sweden, where he has lived for more than 40 years. Nothing needs to be said about choices made and unspoken regrets when Gato Barbieri, touring Central Park in a horse-drawn carriage, reminisces about his career -- a career that he abandoned for a while, discouraged at the state of the music business. At the end of the ride he whispers, to no one in particular, "It was a very . . . interesting trip."
Just as often, there are moments of profound joy. Valdes and his son Chucho have had their differences. The father went into exile from Fidel Castro's Cuba in 1960. Three years later, while on tour in Europe, he met a Swedish woman, married and stayed in Stockholm. Meanwhile, back home, the son grew to become a cultural hero of the revolution. He still lives on the island. They didn't see each other for 18 years and, reportedly, their reunion was not easy. By the time "Calle 54" was made, the relationship had warmed up but the two were meeting after five years, and the affection when they do reconnect fills the screen. Their duet, an elegant reading of Ernesto Lecuona's "La Comparsa," paced and punctuated by knowing glances and half smiles, is one of the most moving love scenes on film.
It is a fitting centerpiece for this movie. Music is the true language for father and son; music is the language, and subject, of "Calle 54," which is also a love story. This is one fan's valentine to the music he loves. It just happens that the fan is a terrific filmmaker and the music loves him back -- and we get to see it and hear it all. What a treat.
Calle 54 (105 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle 5) is unrated and contains no objectionable material.