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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Cubanissimo
Cubanissimo
SKD USA // Unrated // October 19, 2004 // Region 0
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Gil Jawetz | posted January 20, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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When the Buena Vista Social Club movie came out in 1999 Cuban music found itself in the hot-seat, with Americans buying up the traditional sounds in droves. But it was really just the Buena Vista imprimatur that was selling; The entire rest of the Cuban music scene was still locked up within that island-nation's famously insular borders. Cubanissimo spreads the love around a little more broadly, showcasing a host of artists and styles not familiar to the Buena Vista generation.

But it's also a loosely structured, sloppily edited film, with little in the way of actual historical content. Still, I usually find myself criticizing music-related documentaries for dwelling too much on the stories and not presenting enough of the music. That's definitely not the case here: I would say that nearly all of Cubanissimo's 84 minute running time is taken up by music, often with songs presented in their complete form. I'm not complaining: The free-form nature of the film makes it a uniquely engaging experience. Brief, sporadic snippets 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 shot recently on video, clips from old Cuban films, and performances from large concerts. The effect is of a huge tapestry loosely woven but with each style blending to the next. Once I 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 fantastic music.

From tender, sorrowful ballads to uptempo dance songs, the music of Cuba is a real inspiration. While Cubanissimo mostly avoids politics (images of Fidel Castro are unavoidable in this setting) it still gives a sense of the music being integral to the lives of the people. This is especially clear in the communal sing-along performances featuring casual bands of older Cubans, their group voices creating a great chorus of melody.

Of the few sequences that spend time discussing a particular performer, the most interesting is probably the one about Beny More. More was the most popular Cuban singer and performer in his day but alcoholism ran him into the ground. When one former collaborator shows how he "drank" in his final days (by rubbing booze into his hands like cologne and deeply inhaling the fumes) it's a quiet, sad moment.

But for the most part Cubanissimo doesn't pause for reflection like this. In fact, it barely stops to identify who is on screen at any time. Identifications are inconsistent and 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; A film that works in total in ways that the individual parts fail.

VIDEO:
The biggest downer about Cubanissimo is the video quality. The full-frame transfer, whether intentional or not, is horrendously ugly. The entire film is tinted an ugly yellow, rendering the sunny colors of the Cuban settings murky green and orange. I have no idea why it looks like this, but it's a joke. I thought perhaps my TV was broken at first. The picture is also not particularly sharp (which is understandable given the variety of sources used) but whatever the filmmakers did to the picture after they assembled it was a big mistake.

AUDIO:
The Dolby Digital stereo audio is much better. Not showcase quality, and still compromised technically by the variety of source material, the soundtrack does a nice job of presenting the music. It's lively and clean, for the most part. Unlike the video, the audio works nicely and makes the disc worth a look. It's in Spanish with permanent (if inconsistent) English subtitles.

EXTRAS:
Nothing.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
Aside from the strangely terrible video quality, Cubanissimo is a worthwhile film. For all its choppy style, the film contains fabulous performances and that makes up for a lot of filmmaking incompetence. Fans of the music will definitely enjoy listening to the parade of greats on this disc.

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