When the Buena Vista Social Club movie came out in 1999 Cuban music found itself
the hot-seat, with Americans buying up the traditional sounds in droves. But it was
just the Buena Vista imprimatur that was selling; The entire rest of the Cuban music
was still locked up within that island-nation's famously insular borders.
spreads the love around a little more broadly, showcasing a host of artists and styles
familiar to the Buena Vista generation.
But it's also a loosely structured, sloppily edited film, with little in the way of
historical content. Still, I usually find myself criticizing music-related
dwelling too much on the stories and not presenting enough of the music. That's
the case here: I would say that nearly all of Cubanissimo's 84 minute running
taken up by music, often with songs presented in their complete form. I'm not
free-form nature of the film makes it a uniquely engaging experience. Brief, sporadic
of interviews explain the musical and dance styles, like the Son, rumba, and cha cha
cha, but for the
most part the film flits from performance to performance.
There are street performances
recently on video, clips from old Cuban films, and performances from large concerts.
effect is of a huge tapestry loosely woven but with each style blending to the next.
realized that I wasn't going to be hand-fed a narrative (unlike Wim Wender's Buena
Vista film) I just sat back, relaxed, and let my mind wander as I listened to some
From tender, sorrowful ballads to uptempo dance songs, the music
Cuba is a real inspiration. While Cubanissimo mostly avoids politics (images of
Castro are unavoidable in this setting) it still gives a sense of the music being
the lives of the people. This is especially clear in the communal sing-along
featuring casual bands of older Cubans, their group voices creating a great chorus of
Of the few sequences that spend time discussing a particular performer, the most
is probably the one about Beny More. More was the most popular Cuban singer and
his day but alcoholism ran him into the ground. When one former collaborator shows how
"drank" in his final days (by rubbing booze into his hands like cologne and deeply
the fumes) it's a quiet, sad moment.
But for the most part Cubanissimo doesn't pause for reflection like this. In
barely stops to identify who is on screen at any time. Identifications are inconsistent
often fleeting, and subtitles race by, often too quickly to be read. Song lyrics are
translated - sometimes. Still, the sum of the parts here is a living, breathing whole;
that works in total in ways that the individual parts fail.
The biggest downer about Cubanissimo is the video quality. The full-frame
whether intentional or not, is horrendously ugly. The entire film is tinted an ugly
rendering the sunny colors of the Cuban settings murky green and orange. I have no idea
looks like this, but it's a joke. I thought perhaps my TV was broken at first. The
also not particularly sharp (which is understandable given the variety of sources used)
whatever the filmmakers did to the picture after they assembled it was a big mistake.
The Dolby Digital stereo audio is much better. Not showcase quality, and still
technically by the variety of source material, the soundtrack does a nice job of
the music. It's lively and clean, for the most part. Unlike the video, the audio works
and makes the disc worth a look. It's in Spanish with permanent (if inconsistent) English subtitles.
Aside from the strangely terrible video quality, Cubanissimo is a worthwhile
all its choppy style, the film contains fabulous performances and that makes up for a
filmmaking incompetence. Fans of the music will definitely enjoy listening to the
greats on this disc.