Judge Victor Valdivia is not the music. He is, however, the sleazy roadie, the thieving manager, and the egotistical background singer. So the music couldn't exist without him.
The Golden Age of Cuban Music.
That's the promise of We Are the Music!, and Latin music fans would be thrilled if it was kept. Sadly, what actually results is a flawed experimental film coupled with one of the most careless DVD packages ever assembled.
Facts of the Case
In 1964, Cuban filmmaker Rogelio Paris captured a series of vignettes set around Cuban music and musicians of the era with his film Nosotros, La Musica! (We, the Music! or, more loosely, We Are the Music!) Bola De Nieve, Quinteto Instrumental de Musica Moderna, Elena Bourke, and many other musicians from the era are captured in performances. Interspersed are images from daily life in Cuba and Havana that are meant to show that music is an inextricable part of Cuban culture.
We Are the Music! is an immensely frustrating film. There is no shortage of incredible musical performances from various Cuban musicians performing at the peak of their powers, and the music is so intoxicating as to be almost overwhelming. Unfortunately the film presents it in such a sloppy and haphazard manner as to make it almost impossible to really enjoy.
It would not be entirely accurate to refer to We Are the Music! as a documentary, despite some interview segments. It might be better considered as the 1964 equivalent of a long-form music video. Images drift in and out, random interviews are started in the middle of sentences, and songs sometimes blend into one another. The liner notes describe it as "impressionistic." It could just as easily be described as "lazy" and "half-assed." Some musicians are identified by name. Others are not. Some songs are cut in half to make room for random interview segments. Others are started, stopped, restarted, and stopped again. Even Cuban music aficionados will hear many great new songs that they've never heard before, but since many artists and songs here are unidentified, good luck trying to find them.
The film's artiness winds up undercutting its primary selling point, the music. The film starts with a young musician singing the praises of legendary Cuban bandleader and singer Beny Moré. In most Latin American countries, Moré's fame far surpasses that of Tito Puente or Xavier Cugat. Yet the film doesn't actually have any footage of Moré performing, nor do any of the musicians in the film play any of his songs. This sort of pretentious name-dropping that promises something that isn't actually there will irritate viewers. Similarly, there are several beautiful shots of life in Cuba, of parks in springtime, of historic buildings in Havana, of ordinary people going about their daily lives as they work, cook, clean, and raise children. It would make sense to score these scenes with the music that has been so carefully captured. Instead, the film is inconsistent. Sometimes it lets the music score the visuals, but too many other times a great performance is actually interrupted to show pretty pictures in utter silence. If these touches are meant to illustrate how Cuban culture produces Cuban music, they fail miserably, as they're far more distracting and grating than enlightening.
It's a shame the film is so needlessly affected, as there are some incredible musical performances here. The jazz combo Quinteto Instrumental de Musica Moderna (Instrumental Quintet of Modern Music) is filmed in a club, cracking in a red-hot jam, which is unfortunately interrupted to launch into an interpretive dance routine that isn't really as interesting. The pianist and singer Bola De Nieve ("Ball of Snow"), who is in fact a dark-skinned black man who chuckles heartily at his ironic nickname, plays two of his songs. On a beach near Santiago, a band strikes up a mambo that sets partygoers instantly to dancing. In a poor neighborhood in Havana, a spontaneous jam by some local musicians makes even the busy housewives stand up and dance. A prayer group erupts into an infectious chant. There's enough good music here to make this worth watching, but the inconsistent filmmaking winds up doing a disservice to the music itself. We Are the Music! winds up being less a salute to Cuban music and more to Paris' pretensions.
First Run Features doesn't appear to have taken much care in putting this DVD together. There was apparently no remastering performed, judging by the thick layers of scratches and dirt. It's also questionable if the full-screen transfer corresponds to the original aspect ratio, as several of the opening titles are lopped off. The only subtitles provided are English and, for some reason, German. The mono mix is adequate, if a little muffled.
The only extra appears to have been found laying about the office and included with little forethought. "Omara" (24:53) is a biography of Omara Portuondo, one of the singers who appears in Buena Vista Social Club. She does not appear nor is she mentioned at any point in the main feature. There is also no indication anywhere of when this film was made, where it originally appeared, or why it was added to this disc, other than the fact that Portuondo is another Afro-Cuban singer of around the same era and First Run couldn't figure out where else to put it. Portuondo is a talented singer, and she does perform a couple of songs, including a great version of "Stormy Weather," but this still comes off as an entirely random choice. Why not add a commentary by a Cuban music historian or perhaps a featurette that delves into the history of Cuban music and puts this film and the performers seen here in some sort of context? Even adding new subtitles that identify performers and songs would help. Just dumping this film onto disc really isn't enough. The packaging also promises "Biographies & Filmographies," but there are none anywhere on the disc.
We Are the Music! is a film with great potential and great music that is far more ostentatious than it needs to be. Add a slipshod presentation on DVD and it becomes a deeply frustrating disappointment. Latin music fans ought to see it, but whether they ought to own it is a whole other question altogether.
First Run Films has taken a flawed film badly in need of clarification and slapped together an inexcusably shoddy DVD package of it. They don't get any guiltier than that.
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