There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Spanish director Fernando Trueba, whose Belle Epoque won the 1994 Best Foreign Film Oscar, defines the aim of Calle 54 as “primarily to share a musical banquet with anyone who is ready for it.” If you enjoy Latin jazz, prepare to feast on this extraordinary movie featuring musicians hailing from Brazil, Spain, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Argentina, and the United States. Trueba assembled a dozen Latin jazz groups in a New York studio and shot complete performances ranging from five to 10 minutes long. Backed by vibrantly colored cycloramas, these artists blend the rhythms and musical forms of their homelands (flamenco, samba, rumba, tango, mambo) with the improvisatory freedom of jazz. Trueba, cinematographer Jose Luis López-Linares, and editor Carmen Frías employ deft camera movement and montage to enhance the musical nuances of each selection. It’s difficult to select the most savory courses of this banquet, which range from virtuoso piano pieces by Michel Camilo and Chucho Valdés to uninhibited ensemble performances led by the late vibraphonist-timbalist Tito Puente, percussionist Orlando “Puntilla” Ríos, reed player Paquito D’Rivera, and composer Chico O’Farrill. The film ends on a touchingly lyrical note, a piano duet by Valdés and his father, Bebo Valdés. (Reunited with his son after a five-year separation, Bebo affectionately observes, “You’re as fat as a toad.”) Apart from brief introductory musings by the artists, Calle 54 allows the music to speak for itself. Ken Burns and the corporate executives who funded his verbose, soporific 19-hour PBS folly should be locked in a projection room and not permitted to leave until they have memorized every note and shot of Trueba’s exhilarating masterpiece. —Joel E. Siegel