Friday, November 7, 2008


Latin American Film Festival Main Page

Must-see Cuban film depicting 1950s bandleader and charismatic singer Benny More, paired with a documentary on Mexican guitar makers at the Latin American Film Festival tomorrow:

Saturday. NOVEMBER 8

Family Life Recreation Center at Lyon Park (1309 Halley St. Durham NC 27701) 5:30 pm

“Guitar Holiday.” Dennis Conway. (USA-Mexico) 2007.

English and Spanish. 47min.

It is a documentary about the guitar makers of Paracho, Michoacan and the Mexican National Guitar Festival that continues to acknowledge and celebrate their world renowned craftsmanship. Guitar Holiday features compelling interviews with guitar makers in their homes and workshops, and an occasionally drifting frame invites viewers to witness the rich culture and cherished traditions of the people of Paracho. Dozens of guitar shops line the main plaza and side streets of Paracho, where you can buy a guitar from the person who made it. Every August Paracho comes alive as it hosts the Mexican National Guitar Festival. The festival features classical guitar concerts, parades, mariachi and Purepecha folk performances and competitions for guitarists and guitar makers. But ultimately, it is the town that emerges as the main character in a spirited display of tradition and community pride.


“El Benny.” Jorge Luis Sánchez. (Cuba) 2006

Spanish with English subtitles. 120min.

It is a fictional story based on the life of the famous Cuban musician Benny Moré. It includes new versions of his songs performed by musicians including Chucho Valdés, Juan Formell, Haila and Orishas. The film premiered in Cuba in July 2006, and was presented at the Locarno International Film Festival (2006). The film was Cuba's candidate for the Academy Awards. The film won the "First Work" (Opera Prima) award at the New Latin American Cinema festival in Havana in December 2006. U.S. premiere at the "Palm Springs International Film Festival" (2007), and its east coast premiere at the Miami International Film Festival (2007). The director is distantly related to Benny Moré. [--Wikipedia]

In partnership with Durham Parks and Recreation.

Synopses from the festival website.

Footage of the real Benny More:

Lots more great stuff in this FREE festival which runs through November 21.


Posted 11/20/08

The El Benny film was excellent. Made in Cuba in 2006, co-written by Abrahán Rodríguez and director Jorge Luis Sánchez, the role of Benny was played by actor Renny Arozarena, with vocals provided by Juan Manuel Villi. Other contributions by musicians who did not appear on camera were a conspicuous piano solo provided by Chucho Valdés, and a tribute arrangement by Juan Manual Ceruto with the voices of Haila Monpie and the rap group Orishas.

What El Benny gets right: the body language, from the facial gestures, to the sleight of hand of stashing a joint underneath a shirt collar, to the physicality of Moré's conducting style, to the way Benny enjoyed alcohol without imbibing it once he had ruined his liver (by rubbing it between his hands and cupping them over his nose and mouth like an oxygen mask).
And of course the music and dance vocabulary, the look of the settings, the language, the cubanía of it all.

What the film embellishes on is the fictional narrative, what one might call the propaganda frame. I say this advisedly, not only because I don't fancy that a movie about Beny Moré that depicted him playing dominos with Batista (which according to family and friends is a biographical fact) could ever be made in Cuba. No more than movies get made in Hollywood that don't conform to certain narratives that will be palatable to audiences and studio powers.

Besides, the film doesn't waste much time on a subplot about fictional associates of Moré's who are engaged in revolutionary activities. There is a lot of time spent, relatively, a surprising amount, on the ins and outs of the music business, especially the negative aspects behind the scenes: racism, envy, swindles and double-dealings. This probably reflects the reality pretty accurately, in spirit if not 100% in fact.

It's easy to imagine the ways Hollywood would get this story wrong. Cultural things like Moré's humble roots ("Soy Guajiro"), and the African spiritual practices he inherits from his grandfather, would have been opaque to Hollywood. They would have simply left it out, or tried to overexplain to outsiders, just like El Cantante did with the Fania story. Hollywood usually underestimates the average movie viewers' ability to follow a suspenseful narrative, even when it means taking on unfamiliar assumptions. Just look at the vast appetite for plot twists and fantasy worlds on the part of today's video gamers, film and TV viewers. Really you just have to get people to identify with and care about your characters and they are along for the ride.

The advantage a Cuban filmmaker has is he can use all these cultural allusions as vehicles to tell the story (to his culturally literate audience) in a non-literal way. So for instance, "death" was portrayed allegorically, with a sort of Santería twist, as one of Benny's fans, a sexed-up, middle-aged nurse who has the hots for him after he's hospitalized with liver failure. There was a delightful sex scene in the movie too, (and I don't the mean the quick, funky bang in a nightclub men's room), refreshingly absent of the airbrushed, high-pressure Hollywood cliches. The camera seemed to move with a Cuban sensibility, from the novel way it maneuvered through the lovemaking, to the unapologetic delight it took in the fleshy curve of a young woman's back.

I liked the way the film shows snippets of the real Benny at the end, as well as footage of the massive mourning at his funeral. The way modern musicians are incorporated in the closing credits of the soundtrack captures how vital Benny's music remains to the music of Cuba today, even though popular styles have changed drastically. The film captures his sheer genius, and the effect it had (and still has) on people.

This interview on the America TéVé talk show "A Mano Limpia" with host Oscar Haza features the grandson and Moré's trombonist Generoso Jimenez. My sense from this was that Benny was "of the people" but above politics, and to be fair to the film, it does give Benny lines of dialogue that intimate this. The upshot from the interview was that while some characters were invented, and much of the story is a fantasy, it does lock in to true events at times, and the characterization is spot on.

No comments: