Latin jazz enthusiasts will rejoice as they sway to the exotic sounds of director Fernando Trueba's musical mosaic Calle 54, a testament to Trueba's appreciation for this style of music and the celebrated artists responsible for producing this lyrical landscape. But though the music featured in this finger-snapping anthology is indeed infectious, Trueba never really provides any insight into the genre or the talents responsible for igniting the movement. Calle 54 is a festive experience for those who are willing to embrace Latin jazz, but it doesn't reveal anything beyond a peek at a two hour celluloid concert in session.
Inevitably, Calle 54 will beg comparisons to the highly-charged jolt of Buena Vista Social Club. What made Buena Vista so frothy and enticing was its emphasis on the biographical stamp of the artists and what the music meant to that society's psyche. In Calle 54, Trueba parades around a who's who of Latin musicians and lets the music flow, but without invoking any emotion.
We know that music can be presented as a way to define the fabric of various cultures, particularly in the Latin world. But Trueba is so busy playing a cheerleader to the random proceedings at hand, he doesn't seize the opportunity. How does it influence the community? Just how inspirational was it to the artists who performed it? Is the music a political statement disguised in melody? Since Trueba fails to adequately spotlight the artists, giving them a back seat to their own tunes, is he hinting that they are less important than the songs? Is the spirituality of music more significant than what we gave it credit for? Trueba unintentionally raises more questions than he cares to account for.
Trueba has fun marching out the personalities responsible for the musical mayhem. There's a continuous line of Latin jazz artists doing their thing: Tito Puente, Chucho Valdes, Jerry Gonzalez, Cachao Lopez, Paquito D'Rivera, and more. As they play with ferocious merriment, you sit there wondering when the drum solo will end. Monotony eventually seeps in, and even the most ardent fans of Latin jazz probably won't mind if the subjects dropped their instruments and shed some insight on the music they play.
Calle 54 is an energetic look at remarkably talented performers who give life to the high-spirited sounds of a unique brand of music. The film does briefly touch upon the individual artists but we really understand them, but the musical numbers are breathtaking, and the camerawork adds to the film's vibrant presentation. If you really want to get behind the scenes, you need to turn to the commentary tracks on the DVD (courtesy of associate producer Nat Chediak, one in English and one in Spanish), but then you end up missing out on the music. There's also a documentary on the history of Latin jazz included to provide a bit more backstory.
What you get out of watching Calle 54 can essentially be duplicated by listening to a lively CD. The music is spry and enjoyable. As a documentary that shines some light on this kind of music, I'm ambivalent. But as a personal postcard to filmmaker Trueba and the legions of fans who adore Latin jazz, Calle 54 strikes a funky chord.
It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt.