Docudrama inherits joyful soundtrack from Buena Vista Social Club, but the novelty has worn off

Musica Cubana

on September 05, 2004 by Mark Keizer
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The Cuban music and Havana locales survive, which is joy enough in Musica cubana, the follow-up to the 1999 sensation Buena Vista Social Club. Argentinean director German Kral takes over for Wim Wenders, and he shows a similar love for traditional and modern musical forms in Cuba, as well as a painter's eye for the dilapidated beauty of the Communist nation.

As expected, the film soars during the plentiful musical interludes, but there are also scripted segments that must be endured to get to the music. Cuban actor Barbaro Marin plays a taxi driver who picks up singer and Buena Vista Social Club veteran Pio Leyva. The 85-year-old Leyva is late for a radio show appearance, and Barbaro is only too happy to deliver his idol to the studio on time. After the show, Barbaro asks Leyva if he'd be interested in forming a Cuban supergroup, one that would gather the best young local musicians.

Driving around Havana in Barbaro's 1948 Chevrolet, they encounter and enjoy some of the country's most accomplished performers, including Mayito Rivera (called the Cuban Mick Jagger) and the beautiful Osdalgia, whose feminine charms convince a skeptical Pio to take on the project. What's refreshing about these talented men and women is the genuine and unironic joy they bring to every lyric. Many sing simply about the joy of singing and how their music features the “Cuban touch.” But it doesn't come off as well rehearsed nationalism or the spouting of Communist rhetoric. They love music and the way music allows them to show pride in their roots and their personal accomplishments.

Musica cubana is not a political film, but Barbaro does talk of eliminating all distinctions between rich and poor. He also compares Cuban women to European women. “A Latin woman massages your feet when you are tired”, he says. “If you tell a European woman to massage your feet…she'll send you back to where you came from…to Cuba.”

With the band members chosen and the group christened the Sons of Cuba, Barbaro wonders where and how to premiere his new creation. The answer comes when two Japanese tourists hear the group's music and are moved to buy them all tickets to Tokyo. The film closes with wonderful (though badly lit) scenes in Japan, as the Cuban nationals taste sushi for the first time (“I like this tuna as much as my rice and beans,” one says) and perform for a warm and welcoming Tokyo audience.

Although the music is equally joyous and the street scenes equally fascinating, Musica cubana doesn't have its predecessor's sense of discovery. Plus, a group of old codgers finally getting their due is more interesting than young Cuban rappers with their lives ahead of them. Leyva, who died in March 2006, is a feisty one, and his wonderful stories help paper over the awkwardness of the scripted material. Unlike American pop music, which is so much corporatized crap, the hearts of these Cuban musicians overflow with good feelings that pour out through song. Musica cubana is a glowing demonstration of the power of positive singing.

Distributor: Cinema Libre
Cast: Pio Leyva and Barbaro Marin
Director: German Kral
Producers: Claus Clausen and John G. Phelan
Genre: Docudrama
Rating: Not rated
Running time: 88 min.
Release date: October 13, 2006 ltd.

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