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Cuba: Island Of Music


Cuba: Island Of Music


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The question of what makes a good documentary drives people into two factions: one that sees documentaries as cinema first, and one that sees them primarily as journalism. The former tends to value artful presentation over content, while the latter looks for thoroughness and insight, however prosaic the package. Gary Keys' video-shot documentary Cuba: Island Of Music aims in part to be a documentary for the fact-faction, and specifically to be a companion piece to Wim Wenders' artier Buena Vista Social Club. Cuba: Island Of Music takes a broader view of the effect of politics and history on the rhythmic, jazzy style known as Afro-Cuban. In the process, Keys serves up a generous sampling of talking heads who analyze the way music suffuses Cuban life; they break down the components of the island's sound and offer politely disgusted comment on the state of U.S.-Cuban relations. Keys frequently inserts footage of himself driving around New York in a convertible, telling the story of how he went to Cuba to teach a class on film and music, and was surprised to find such freedom of expression in a country reportedly so repressed. Cuba: Island Of Music is strongest when it strives to be comprehensive, touring the country to unearth examples of Cuban jazz, hip-hop, R&B, and classical. Keys effectively illustrates the role of dance in the local sound, cutting between a designated dancer demonstrating different moves and musicians performing the styles that match them. The director is equally adept at cutting together his impressions of the country itself, crafting montages of old cars, cigar factories, butcher shops, and street vendors. But though his approach is smart and sensitive, the material itself feels a little predigested. The music is catchy, the scholarship solid, and the editing sharp enough to balance the cheap video look, but what's missing is a personal catalyst–from Keys or from his interviewees–that would make Cuba: Island Of Music more than a compendium of pretty pictures and predictable lectures. As one man's vacation video, it's outstanding, but as a documentary, it lacks verve, stylistically or journalistically.