Judge Russell Engebretson thinks Cuba may be an okay place to take up residence, if he can only score a lucrative conducting gig in Havana.
Ten beautiful musicians, playing the harmonies of Cuban music, demonstrate the power of music to cross timeless boundaries.
Cuba Mia: Portrait of an All-Woman Orchestra is a 2002 PBS documentary that captures a few weeks in the lives of a Cuban all-woman orchestra called the Camerata Romeu. The film was scripted by director Cecilia Domeyko, and plays out more like a movie than a documentary. The cameras follow the musicians into their homes, offer a glimpse of their family lives, and track them as they commute to and from rehearsals. The film is structured so that all the struggles—the grueling practice sessions, rehearsals, juggling of families and careers—culminate in a triumphant concert at the Basilica in Old Havana.
The orchestra's lineup at the time of filming included the following players: Lianne Lastre (percussionist), Yescenia Fales (Cellist), Dayren Santamaria (violinist), Caridad Zalvida (Bass Player), Yohima Fernandez (violist), Anolan Gonzales (violist), Veronica Reyes (violinist), Yadira Cobo (violinist), and Zenaida Romeu (conductor).
The documentary has three compelling hooks to draw viewers in and keep us watching. Firstly, it was filmed in Cuba. It's interesting to see Havana from different perspectives: from the upper class home of the conductor to the cramped apartments of the musicians; the crumbling, crazy mix of architecture that ranges from baroque to neo-colonial to contemporary; the ancient automobiles held together with not much more than baling wire and a prayer. Secondly, the orchestra (actually, more of a large string ensemble) is all females. That's not unique, but unusual enough to stimulate the viewer's curiosity as to why its conductor settled on the idea of an all-woman orchestra. Finally, the orchestra includes Latin styled music as part of its repertoire. It's delightful to hear the Latin, Afro-Cuban, and Spanish pieces (amazingly, all played from memory) performed by classically trained musicians.
On the down side, the documentary as a whole is somewhat bland, typical PBS fare. Although the musicians' circumstances are real, the documentary often feels contrived: one young violinist practices for hours on her balcony in a crowded apartment complex, but not a single neighbor complains. Brief interviews show only smiling residents who are happy to hear her play from morning to evening all week long. I don't buy it. Not every one is fond of classical music, and even the most entranced listener needs a break, or might want to give something a spin on the record player in lieu of a continual practice session. Another scene—shot against the background of a beautiful seascape—shows the girls meeting up with their boyfriends on a well-deserved break from the pressures of rehearsal; then it's nose-to-the-grindstone time as they resume their brutal schedules. There is abundant real drama in these young women's lives without the need for such manipulative script clichés—except, of course, to provide a feel-good story arc that keeps the viewer in a comfortable, well-worn groove.
But the film is not all one banal scene after another. Some of the little character vignettes are natural and believable. Bass player Caridad Zalvida, oldest player in the orchestra, does not follow the rehearsal regime of her youthful compatriots. Young classical musicians are by necessity obsessive and fanatically competitive, but Caridad is too devoted to her home life (cooking meals, taking care of her child) to spend her days practicing. Instead, she plays a recording of the concert music that will be part of their program and listens to it throughout the day during her house chores until she has committed it to memory. A few other like-minded scenes gracefully illuminate the characters with the same seeming ease.
It's apparent that the director did not have to beg relatives and friends for funding. According to the "Making of Cuba Mia" featurette, a second unit was hired to help film the Basilica concert—with five stationary cameras and a handheld camera for close-ups and crowd shots. The film crew even had a Steadicam at their disposal. By no stretch of the imagination could Cuba Mia be called guerilla filmmaking.
For such an expensively filmed documentary, the DVD transfer is only a couple of notches above passable. It almost appears to have been duplicated from a tape. Colors are solid and vivid, but there are too many movement artifacts (tearing and combing), and the image is soft. The artifacts will probably not be too distracting on small to medium size monitors. The audio is likewise a rather lackluster Dolby stereo, although the concert footage sounds decent enough. Music from the bonus featurettes (a single concert piece and full-length versions of menu background music) are recorded in the uncompressed audio format LPCM. The CD quality audio opens up the sound of the stringed instruments and delivers a more pleasurable listening experience.
According to a blurb on the back of the DVD keepcase, "If you liked Buena Vista Social Club you will love Cuba Mia." Well, the two films do have Cuba and music in common; otherwise, it's a spurious comparison. The music from Buena Vista Social Club is Cuban roots music played and sung by authentic local folk musicians (with legendary slide guitarist Ry Cooder lending a helping hand, of course); the Latin music played by the Camerata Romeu is filtered through the European classical tradition. As such, the music on Cuba Mia is a novelty, no less than a J.S. Bach cello suite transcribed for banjo. Still, it's a pleasant enough film, and worth a rental if you didn't catch it on PBS.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Arkadia DVD
• The Making of Cuba Mia Featurette
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