Judge Victor Valdivia wonders why no one has ever made pretentiously incoherent documentaries about polkas or bagpipe music.
Discover the real music of Cuba, presented through archival footage and exceptional interviews.
Why is it than when some documentarians claim to make films about Cuban music, they wind up making pretentious, incoherent tone poems that are more about their supposed visual proficiency than the actual music itself? Like We Are the Music!, Cubanissimo purports to tell "The history of Cuban music." And like We Are the Music!, it does nothing of the sort. Just like that film, Cubanissimo is a random collection of song snippets, images from Cuba, and old film clips that have no structure or story. They're just stitched together with no rhyme or reason, and anyone who doesn't know anything about Cuban music before watching it will know possibly even less afterwards.
Indeed, Cubanissimo is certainly not for novices to Cuban music. The film assumes viewers will know an awful lot about it, and even those who do will find it hard to follow. For instance, the film spends a section in the middle (for no particular reason, as nothing here is done in chronological order) addressing the music of legendary singer and bandleader Beny Moré. While it's perfectly reasonable for a film about Cuban music to invoke Moré (in fact, it would be ludicrous not to, as he remains the biggest star in Cuban music history), the film never actually explains why Moré was important. For one thing, not one of Moré's songs is actually included in its entirety. Every performance here is chopped up and interspersed with random shots of present-day Cubans walking, working, and dancing in the streets (presumably, not to one of his live performances, as he died in 1963). For another, none of the interviewees (including musicians and singers) actually discuss his music, preferring instead to dwell on his death by alcoholism. How exactly is this useful to anyone? Similarly, Cubanissimo devotes sections to discussing boleros and sons. It does not, however, actually explain what they are. In Latin music, a bolero is a slow love ballad, and a son is a rhythmic dance number. No one in the film ever spells this out. Instead, they merely discuss how much they like each type of song. Also note that while you will get to hear examples of each in the film, they're not in the section related to them. They're scattered about randomly, for reasons that can't possibly make any sense.
It's a shame that Cubanissimo is so disjointed, because it actually has just enough care to suggest how good it could have been. There are, of course, some truly magnificent musical performances, from everyone from Omara Portuondo (from Buena Vista Social Club) to Bola de Nieve, and some are even included in their entirety, with minimal editing. The film's director, Philippe Blot, has taken the time to identify almost all of the singers and songs seen here, even when the performances are incomplete. There's also some wonderful footage of elderly musicians giving spontaneous concerts that quickly turn into rollicking block parties. The sight of people courageously finding joy in the poverty and squalor that mark daily life in Castro's socialist "paradise" is far more touching than all the rhetoric any politician could make. Still, Cubanissimo is so chaotic that it winds up raising far more questions than it answers. Why isn't this film organized in any way, chronologically, musically, or otherwise? Why are the images that Blot has chosen to accompany the music so pedestrian? There's footage of some random person's wedding, for instance, shot as boringly as if it were someone's home wedding video. What is the point of the clips of the Cuban revolution? These come from out of nowhere; there's a clip of someone singing, then old black-and-white shots of airplanes bombing Havana, then more musical performances, with no explanation or context. Whatever statement Blot was going for, it's handled so messily that it's incomprehensible.
The technical aspects of the DVD are not very good either. The modern footage in the film was shot in 2001, and looks OK, as far as video mastered onto DVD goes. However, there are several instances where the audio and the video don't sync up correctly. It's downright headache-inducing to see a singer wail soulfully and then, seconds later, actually hear what he's wailing. The older film clips were also not mastered properly. They suffer from edge enhancement so pronounced that they wind up looking smeared. The Dolby digital 2.0 audio is decent, and since the interviews are all in Spanish, subtitles in English and French are included. Be warned, however, that these subtitles are as careless as the film is. Several phrases and words are mistranslated. The Spanish equivalent of "April Fool's Day," for example, is inexplicably subtitled as "Apple Fruit Day," whenever that is. Similarly, the running time on the DVD case is incorrect. The film lasts 85 minutes, not the 105 indicated on the case. There are no extras, but it's just as well, as those probably would have been botched too.
Cubanissimo has some beautiful music and performances, but is so hard to watch, even for fans, that it's ultimately guilty of wasting viewers' time on some impenetrably arty conceit that only Blot understands. Is it that hard to make a simple, straightforward documentary about the history of Cuban music? Someday, some truly talented filmmaker should make the effort to finally get it right. Guilty.
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