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Review: 'Calle 54' moves but doesn't inform


(CNN) -- Fans of Latin jazz will think they've died and gone to heaven while watching "Calle 54," director Fernando Trueba's performance-filled valentine to the music he loves. If, however, you're not familiar with this music, don't expect to be enlightened the way you were by 1999's somewhat similar "Buena Vista Social Club." There's undoubtedly a lot to know about the film's fiery musicians, but Trueba is mostly keeping quiet.

Top-drawer musical improvisation is demanding stuff. By definition, a player's background and inclinations have an effect on his or her music. "Buena Vista Social Club" was bursting at the seams with biographical information about the artists, and the ever-present specter of Fidel Castro's Cuba added bittersweet resonance to the songs. Unfortunately, "Calle 54" supplies only the most cursory information concerning its performers.

The result is a chain of astonishing musicians playing complex, free-flowing music. With a couple of exceptions, you have little knowledge of what drives them, outside of the implied tendencies of Latin culture. That doesn't diminish the experience of listening, but if all you want is to listen to Latin jazz, you could just as easily buy a CD compilation and pick it apart at length.

Be warned -- some people will be driven up the wall by the time "Calle 54" proffers its third or fourth consecutive percussion-heavy tune. Here in the United States, Latin jazz was popularized (though hardly invented) by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, shortly after he and Charlie Parker, among others, gave rise to the hard-charging sea change of bebop. The performances in "Calle 54" touch on a lot of different styles, but bop is at the center of most of them. The results can be thrilling if you have a taste for multi-textured musical invention -- exhausting if not.

Trueba has assembled a formidable "who's who" of Latin music: Paquito D'Rivera, Eliane Elias, Chano Dominguez, Jerry Gonzalez, Michel Camilo, Gato Barbieri, Tito Puente, Chucho Valdes, "Cachao" Lopez, "Puntilla" Rios, "Patato" Valdes, and Bebo Valdes. The sound these people generate, and the physical dexterity required to make it, is often staggering.

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D'Rivera opens the picture with a scorching number that's dominated, as expected, by his wailing saxophone. Elias then offers up a gorgeous, subdued performance at the piano. She's quite a sight, in her long black dress and bare feet, leading her combo through a compelling tune that often echoes jazz icon Bill Evans. Elias is an expressive, lyrical player. Her appearance is the film's most readily enjoyable highlight -- which may bode well for drawing people into the theater. She's currently one of the more popular artists in jazz.

Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band probably get the most screen time in the picture; they even throw in a playful mini-performance behind the end credits. Gonzalez plays trumpet in the tradition of Miles Davis and Gillespie, but he's also a highly respected percussionist. The Fort Apache Band's music is incredibly forceful, and Gonzalez is usually at its center. He embellishes the tunes with bursts of trumpet that seem to prod the other musicians to a higher level of invention. When they hit a groove -- which happens about five seconds after the first note -- the song takes flight.

Percussionist Tito Puente, of course, was the grand old man of Latin jazz. His relatively perfunctory performance in "Calle 54," was one of the last of his storied career. Outside of Puente, saxophonist Gato Barbieri is the most recognizable artist in the film. He's also one of the few musicians who Trueba deems interesting enough to speak for more than three seconds. Barbieri, who famously recorded the soundtrack to "Last Tango in Paris" in the early 1970s, contends that music has been steadily going downhill for the past 20 years. He misses the wild invention that used to inform both motion pictures and jazz.

As remarkable as many of the performers are, the heart and soul of "Calle 54" belongs to legendary pianist Bebo Valdes and his son, Chucho. Early in the film, Chucho, also a pianist, performs an absolutely stunning solo piece that recalls artists as varied as Keith Jarrett and Cecil Taylor. Valdes moves effortlessly from an almost hymn-like contemplation to wildly dissonant pounding, then back to a soaring, rapturous finale. But this is just a prelude to the performance he delivers with is father.

The two men, who hadn't seen each other for five years prior to filming, perform a duet that will bring tears to your eyes. Though Latin jazz constantly evokes community, this tune is a musical representation of a family. The knowledge of the musicians' connection to one another makes it the most touching interlude in an overlong but nevertheless entertaining film.

There's no profanity, nudity, or violence in "Calle 54," because hardly anything happens outside of talented musicians getting down to hectic business. Not Rated. 105 minutes.

RELATED SITES: -- Fernando Trueba
European Jazz Network -- Paquito D'Rivera
International Clarinet Connection -- Paquito D'Rivera
Eliane Elias
Chano Dominguez -- Jerry Gonzalez
European Jazz Network -- Michel Camilo
Gato Barbieri
"Chucho" Valdes
"Patato" Valdes

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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