Calle 54

One of the few complaints leveled against Wim Wenders' joyous musical documentary Buena Vista Social Club was that Wenders too often truncated the performance footage in favor of a more extensive portrait of the players and their native Cuba. That argument is put to the test in Calle 54, Spanish director Fernando Trueba's heartfelt tribute to Latin jazz, which features unabridged performances from many stars of the genre, but very little biographical detail or historical context. Coaxing some of his favorite musicians from around the world to play at the Sony recording studio in Manhattan, Trueba made the equivalent of a live-action mix tape, an intimate showcase for such luminaries as saxophonist Gato Barbieri, trumpeter Jerry González, and the late percussionist Tito Puente. But Calle 54's short, crudely photographed artist introductions, invariably padded out by Trueba's hyperbolic voiceovers, fail to link the musical sequences to a broader picture of the Latin jazz movement and its roots. Where Social Club was marked by the momentous and emotionally gripping reunion of Cuban legends, Calle 54's sessions have nothing at stake beyond the simple, infectious joy of performance itself. Arbitrary in length and sequencing, Calle 54 may be nothing more than Trueba's homemade compilation, but it's a pleasure to witness such a diverse sampling of brilliant musicians playing one after another. The exterior footage is indifferent, but inside the studio, Trueba's rhythmic cutting and camera movements are timed in perfect synchronicity to the music, with an emphasis on tight angles that would be impossible to see in a live show. The simple, uncluttered stage is adorned only with the instruments and a bright, solid-color backdrop that changes with each act, complementing the natural vibrancy of the music and the sound recording. The highlights of the uniformly fine performances include Chano Domínguez's inspired fusion of flamenco and jazz traditions, the Afro-Cuban big-band combo led by Chico O'Farrill, and especially Puente, "the godfather of Latino music," whose rhapsodic expressions capture the spirit of the project. While Calle 54 never coheres as a documentary, its piecemeal selections are tailor-made for the DVD age, where chapters can be skipped and rearranged to make a more satisfying movie.

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