Calle 54 (DVD)
Directed by Fernando Trueba
More a concert film than a documentary, Calle 54 (54th Street) brings together legendary performers from the world of Latin Jazz and lets them do what they do best. They make the magic of music happen.
A Wide Variety
Calle 54 is a musical journey through the world of Latin Jazz. The music is the star and the talented artists are the wonderfully colorful supporting cast.
There is Gato Barbieri, taking a ride in a horse-drawn carriage around Central Park and reminiscing about the glory days of the '70s. He's dressed like the Phantom of the Opera, with huge tinted glasses replacing the Phantom's mask. But when he's put on stage and given a saxophone, it's clear he still knows how to make the music of the night.
Less quirky, but equally talented, is Eliane Elias, a pianist from Brazil who strokes the pedals with her bare feet.
Also on tap is Tito Puente, filmed shortly before his death. Energetic and vital, even as he performed in his late 70s, his legacy is proof music helps keep you feeling young.
There are a host of other musicians, and they all present a different facet of the music. To that end, Calle 54 is essentially a primer in the musical roots of Afro-Cuban and Latin Jazz.
Since the music is center stage in the film, it is unfortunate the subtitles do not provide a translation for a couple of the songs containing lyrics. It's a small complaint, but their inclusion would most certainly have added to the meaning of the performances.
All That Jazz
Calle 54 is in a way an odd production. It has segments filmed in such diverse places as the home of the title street, New York City (dubbed the Birthplace of Latin Jazz), Cuba, Puerto Rico, Spain, and even Sweden. But those segments, used to provide a very brief introduction to the various artists, generate more questions than they answer. You know these artists have lots of stories to tell and have seen a lot of things, but those stories are for the most part left untapped.
Equally mysterious are the artists' motivations, what makes them tick, and what drives them to do that thing that they do. Instead of exploring these areas, the film introduces the musicians quickly and puts them to work, letting the music do the talking. This can either be seen as a fault or a virtue, depending on your point of view.
Also, to give the dozen or so featured artists all equal time to tell their stories would lend itself more to the efforts of a Ken Burns mini-series than a single feature-length film.
The "B" Sides
Typical of Miramax DVD titles to date, Calle 54 offers little razzmatazz in its presentation. The menus are simple and easy to navigate.
While the presentation is spartan, the content has some solid special features. Building on the foundation of Calle 54, the DVD is a very nice package that provides a lot of the background information missing from the film.
The centerpiece of the special features is an hour-long documentary, entitled Side B and also directed by the feature's director, Fernando Trueba. The documentary sheds more light on the film's supporting cast, the musicians themselves, by expanding on the interviews found in the feature film. This is where we get to learn a little bit more about the influences of the players and also fill in some of the holes on the historical points.
Happily, Side B is a true companion piece to the feature film and is virtually devoid of the typical inane behind-the-scenes hokum. It also includes some nifty cameos, including David Byrne, former lead of Talking Heads and current dabbler in Latin musical motifs.
The feature film itself is offered in a pristine presentation with its original Spanish language soundtrack; optional English subtitles are shown below the 1.85:1 anamorphic frame. The disc also includes a spoken-French translation.
Key to a music-themed film, the disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound is excellent during the musical performances.
There is also a running commentary (available in English and Spanish) supplied by the film's associate producer, Nat Chediak. Unfortunately, the commentary is sparse and feels like patches of dialogue spliced into the Spanish soundtrack. Adding to the choppy feel of this option, when the commentary is played the subtitles are removed, leaving those not fluent in Spanish high and dry for a good portion of the film.
Topping off the package, the DVD also includes very brief biographies of the musicians along with their discographies.
The music presented in Calle 54 and Side B is hard to argue with, and having both productions in one spot makes for a worthwhile disc. Aside from a few poor technical choices in the supplements, the disc overall is a good one for fans of music to check out – and "completist fans" of the featured artists won't be disappointed by their performances.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.