Judge Victor Valdivia sips a mojito and smokes a Cuban cigar while dancing to Los Zafiros under a Havana moon. Or at least he'd like to.
For those whose lives they briefly touched, Los Zafiros are legends.
Los Zafiros: Music from the Edge of Time is a documentary about the biggest pop group ever to emerge from Cuba in the 1960s. The film does a credible job of telling the story of the band's rise and fall, and it's full of great music and fascinating scenes even if it's not as thorough or comprehensive as it could have been.
Facts of the Case
In the 1960s, Los Zafiros (the Sapphires) were the biggest band in Cuba and most of Latin America. Their popularity in those regions ranked as high as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. In Europe, Los Zafiros toured the biggest concert halls and drew massive crowds. Their intoxicating blend of mambo, calypso, bossa nova, and doo-wop captured fans the world over and would endure far beyond the band's lifetime. In fact, some forty years after their heyday, Los Zafiros' music is more popular and influential than ever. Los Zafiros: Music from the Edge of Time tells the story of the band's career through interviews, photographs, and archival footage of the band in its prime. The film also profiles the two surviving members of the group, Miguel Cancio and Manuel Galban (who can also be seen as a member of the Buena Vista Social Club), and shows them reuniting and playing some songs together one last time.
The story of Los Zafiros is, in many ways, the story of many classic rock and R&B acts in American history. The group—which consisted of singers Miguel Cancio, Eduardo "El Chino" Hernandez (who died in 1995), Ignacio Elejalde (who died in 1981), Leoncio "Kike" Monrua (who died in 1982), and guitarist/arranger Manuel Galban—came together in a tough working-class neighborhood of Havana in 1962, emerged as megastars in the mid-1960s, and broke up shortly thereafter. Tragic deaths, illness, and poverty followed, and the band was forgotten for a while, but eventually, long after their day, they enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. Today, as one Miami DJ points out in the film, Zafiros records are played more at Latin stations than they ever were in the '60s and more new fans are rediscovering their music now than ever before.
By such standards, Los Zafiros' story is commonplace. What's significant is their music. It's that music, that extraordinary mixture of traditional Afro-Latin rhythms and American R&B and doo-wop, which would endure and influence musicians for years to come. In the film, many interviewees explain that Los Zafiros, virtually alone amongst Cuban musicians of the era, were enamored of American R&B groups like the Platters, and the influence is clearly visible in the footage of the band performing in matching slick suits while dancing elaborately choreographed steps. That influence would also show up in the band's intricate vocal harmonies and pop-flavored arrangements, and it would allow Los Zafiros' music to reach younger, more rebellious audiences who were turning away from the traditional mambo and salsa music of the era in favor of the British and American rock and R&B bands which were then emerging. Interviews with some Cuban musicians who were teenagers during the band's heyday confirm that Los Zafiros was, for those teens, as crucial as any Motown or British Invasion band of the day.
Los Zafiros tells this story through the two surviving members of the band. Singer Miguel Cancio, who left Cuba in the 1990s and now lives in Florida, founded the group and named them after his favorite sapphire ring. In the film, he returns to Cuba and reunites with Manuel Galban, the band's guitarist and musical arranger, who still lives and plays in Havana. We are shown many photos and film clips of the band's heyday, and Galban and Cancio reminisce about the history and lives of the members. They also take the time to visit surviving family members of the three deceased singers and get together with some Cuban musicians and singers to record new version of their classic songs. Some of these scenes are touching and even painful, particularly the reunions, which sometimes bring back together friends and family members who haven't seen each other in as much as thirty years. The new performances are also worth seeing, even if the re-recordings, as fantastic as they are, just can't hold a candle to those magical original songs.
It's in telling the history of the band that Los Zafiros is sometimes frustratingly vague. How exactly did Los Zafiros come together? We are only given sketchy information. Why did the group tour Europe extensively but never even come near the United States? No explanations are given, even after an interview with the executive who scheduled acts at the Hollywood Bowl in which he states how much he was blown away by their talent. How and why did the group fall apart? All we get are fuzzy clichés about fame. In fact, we're not even told what year they broke up. Although the film takes pains at the beginning to outline a history of Cuba in the 1950s and 1960s, complete with footage of Fidel Castro overthrowing Fulgencio Batista and continuing through the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis, we are never told how Castro's rule and life in Communist Cuba ever affected the band members. Did Castro's policies ever make any difference in the band's career? Or their lives? No one says. Of course, this is not a political story and Los Zafiros were never a political group, but why bother to explain the political context of the story if it's just going to be completely ignored for the rest of the film?
The film is at its most exasperating in detailing the tragic story of Eduardo "El Chino" Hernandez. Hernandez was the star of the group, the charismatic, swaggering sex symbol. He was not the group's best singer (that was Ignacio Elejalde, possessor of one of the most remarkable voices in musical history) but he was the one the crowds all came to see. One woman lovingly calls Hernandez a "show-off," and explains that he was the reason why she and all her friends went to watch the group perform. But in later years Hernandez deteriorated into illness and depression. One sign of Hernandez's failing mental health occurred when he began to reminisce in the press about a meeting in a Paris hotel room in the mid-1960s between Los Zafiros and the Beatles, a meeting that everyone else agreed could never have taken place because both groups were never in the same city at the same time. In the mid-1980s, Hernandez even put together a version of the band called Los Nuevos Zafiros (the New Sapphires) in which he was the only original member. But Los Nuevos Zafiros never enjoyed much more than second-rate success and Hernandez's health slowly declined until his death in 1995. Why did Hernandez fall apart so badly? Why did he feel the need to put together a fake tribute band that would inevitably suffer in comparison to his original group? What caused his ill health? And how did the other surviving Zafiros feel about the tribute group? None of these questions are answered, or even asked.
Such complaints make Los Zafiros a lesser film than it could have been. But they don't make it a bad film. For all its flaws, it does tell, however imprecisely, the story of the rise and fall of the band. There's no shortage of enthralling footage of the group performing its most classic songs. There are fascinating photographs and some brief interview odds and ends with the original band members in their prime. The scenes of the two surviving Zafiros reuniting and reminiscing about their days in Cuba, meeting back up with surviving family members of the remaining band, and getting together to play some old songs are wonderful too. There simply is no other way of getting a picture of the band's career and story, since Los Zafiros was, for a long time, completely unknown outside of Cuban music circles. In its sometimes maddening way, Los Zafiros is doing a service in finally telling this story and introducing this music to many who would have never heard it before. Anyone who has any interest in Latin music will find Los Zafiros worth seeing.
The film is presented in widescreen. The transfer is crisp and clear during the modern footage, which was shot on video. The older songs, taken from TV shows from the mid-'60s, are, of course, sometimes scratchy and grainy, and all in black-and-white. Nonetheless, these performances are of such historical importance that it's easy to overlook their less than stellar visual quality. Almost all the interviews and songs are in Spanish, but English subtitles are provided. The sound, in stereo, is crisp and clear, and allows even the oldest songs to be heard clearly.
The disc is loaded with extras. First are the deleted scenes (39:14), which consist mainly of reunion songs and performances left out of the finished film. Most of these are enjoyable to watch, especially the rehearsals from the reunion sessions, but the filmmakers were correct in leaving them out of the film, as none of them are essential. The one exception is a beautiful acoustic performance in which Cancio and Galban sit on a couch in Galban's living room and sing "Maceo y Marti." The sight of the two remaining Zafiros singing quietly together is so thrilling, and the song so touching, that it seems a shame that this couldn't find its way into the film. There's also a segment on Oscar Aguirre who was, for a few months, Los Zafiros' first guitarist and wrote some of their biggest hits. Some fascinating tidbits, but also probably not crucial.
In addition, there are bonus interviews (17:57), none of which, unfortunately, fill in the holes left in the finished film. Instead, they mostly tell the stories of Cuban musicians who toured and performed with Los Zafiros in the 1960s. Again, some of the older footage of these artists is fun to watch, but these scenes are not really integral to the story, especially since the artists' memories of Los Zafiros themselves are often hazy.
For fans, the real treat will be the four complete performances by the original band. The film only has two complete songs from the original group, "Cuando Yo La Conoci" and "My Oracion." Here, we also get "Y Sabes Bien" (2:40), "Rumba Como Quiera" (2:42), "Congo Leri" (3:08), and "Pituca La Bella" (5:38). Taken, again, from old mid-'60s TV shows, these are not in the best quality, full of grain and scratches ("Congo Leri," in particular, is in especially rough shape), but are so important, historically, that it's surprising they weren't included in some form in the main feature. One would assume that footage of Los Zafiros performing would be essential for a documentary, so it seems strange that the filmmakers did not use more of these clips.
The disc also includes selections from 1960s Cuban variety shows (5:36). These consist of a couple of songs and an announcement for a big concert. One of the songs, performed by a group called Los Dorados (the Golden Ones), is a tough, rock-influenced song that's worth seeing. The other performance, a novelty number by a duo called Maricusa & Ramon, will amuse retro-kitsch enthusiasts and irritate the hell out of everyone else. If Los Zafiros were the Cuban Beatles, then these guys were apparently the Cuban Herman's Hermits. Even more fodder for retro-kitsch enthusiasts will be the collection of 1950s and 1960s Cuban TV commercials (5:14), advertising everything from soap to record players. Theyâre fun to watch even if you don't speak a word of Spanish. Finally, the DVD also includes the film's theatrical trailer (1:46).
Los Zafiros: Music from the Edge of Time is a must-see for anyone interested in Latin music, especially fans of Buena Vista Social Club. The storytelling is sometimes sloppy and incomplete, and the film sometimes spends too much time on trivia at the expense of important information, but in the end, the film's good points outweigh its bad ones.
Los Zafiros: Music from the Edge of Time is convicted of the lesser charge of not being as meticulous and all-inclusive as it could have been, but is otherwise acquitted by virtue of telling a compelling story and having lots of incredible music.
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