"In the name of the Mambo, and the Rumba, and the Cha Cha Cha."
Art dealer turned movie producer Arne Glimcher made his directorial debut in 1992 with The Mambo Kings, an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Oscar Hijuelos. Two brothers fresh off the boat from Cuba make their way to New York City with plans to set the 1952 music scene on fire with their explosive Latin grooves. Their journey traces the immigrant experience, starting with grueling manual labor at the bottom of the food chain (literally, in a slaughterhouse) until they achieve the great American Dream of success, fame, and fortune, only to have it fall apart due to their own hubris.
Overprotective older brother Cesar (Armand Assante) is the showman with the big plans and an even bigger ego. He's something of a womanizing cad, too proud to allow himself to be "owned" by those who can actually help his career, but his charisma is undeniable and appealing. Naïve younger brother Nestor (a fresh-faced Antonio Banderas) has the real musical talent, but his dreams are much more modest and he spends most of his days in America pining for the girl who dumped him back in Havana, even after starting a new family. Cesar's brusque arrogance runs afoul of a hotshot club promoter who vows that they will never work in his town, until a chance encounter Latino icon Desi Arnaz (played by Desi Arnaz Jr. in an only halfway successful imitation of his father) launches them into the big time. The brothers are offered an appearance on the I Love Lucy show to perform Nestor's soulful ballad "Beautiful Maria of My Soul", much to the chagrin of Nestor's wife (in his defense, there really aren't very many songs you can write using the name "Delores").
Glimcher's film swings to the beat of the infectious mambo rhythms. It moves, and grooves, and throbs with fiery passions. Sultry, sweaty, and sexy, every detail of the era and the music scene is recreated to exacting perfection. Assante's lusty performance reminds us yet again that he really should have been a bigger star, and Banderas (in his first English-speaking role, long before he turned into a ridiculous parody of himself) is suitably heart-breaking and tragic. If the film has a flaw, it's that Glimcher exerts more effort weaving his rich tapestry of period music than he does fleshing out the narrative. The screenplay simplifies and condenses the original novel, essentially skimming through the story to get to the meaty parts. The film keeps good time with the music and clocks in at a brisk 105 minutes, but lacks the epic scope that Hijuelos brought and leaves us feeling that we needed more time with the characters.
Nonetheless, The Mambo Kings is a fine, underrated time capsule of a movie swimming in the atmosphere and glorious music of a period long gone. It has compelling characters, style to spare, and a soundtrack that will stick in your head for weeks afterward. The magic of cinema was made for pictures like this.
For this DVD release, director Arne Glimcher has restored one previously cut scene that brings closure to a supporting character played by Cathy Moriarty. The change isn't significant enough to radically affect anyone's opinion of the movie, but does fine tune at least one part of the narrative that always seemed to have been forgotten.
The movie's original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio has been slightly expanded to fill a 16:9 screen. The compositional intent remains intact, and in fact one or two shots still look a little tight on the top and bottom. The difference is negligible.
The picture has been mastered a hair too dark. At proper display calibration settings, brights are a little dull and darks can be crushed. I don't normally recommend adjusting settings for one particular movie, but bumping up the Brightness control a notch or two improved my impressions of the transfer. The neon glowing opening credits have some color bleed and a trace of edge enhancement ringing, and the black & white sequences seem a little "cool" and bluish, which may or may not be intentional.
Getting all that out of the way, however, in other respects this is a very nice, film-like transfer. The anamorphically enhanced image is sharp and detailed, with excellent texture in the fine details of clothes and little noticeable edge ringing beyond the opening credits. Colors are popping and vibrant, especially that deep red lipstick all the ladies wear. The picture has a nice sense of three-dimensional depth, and aside from the above-mentioned issues does an excellent job representing the terrific photography by Michael Ballhaus.
The (mostly) English-language soundtrack has been remastered into Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The volume is set low by default and benefits greatly by amplification beyond normal levels. The mix has an expansive front soundstage and all of the music sounds great. Surrounds are used sparingly, mostly for subtle envelopment, and the bass doesn't register very deep, but it wasn't necessarily meant to. This is a musical, not an action movie, and if the music sounds good and the dialogue is clear you can't ask for better.
Spanish and Quebecois French dub tracks are also available in Dolby 2.0 Surround. Optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles have been provided, along with English closed captioning. Note that the Spanish-language portions of the original soundtrack (including the opening scene) automatically default to English subtitles whether you choose them or not.
Director Arne Glimcher delivers a laid back, reflective audio commentary. He's an intelligent, soft-spoken man who talks more about story than production details, but does deliver some interesting trivia notes such as that the studio wanted Jeremy Irons and Ray Liota for the leads, and that Annabella Sciorra was originally cast as Delores until a contractual obligation with Disney diverted her to The Hand That Rocks the Cradle instead.
The 5-minute Mambo Kings Behind the Scenes featurette is vintage EPK fluff with little of value. The disc concludes with an anamorphically enhanced theatrical trailer.
No ROM supplements have been included.
Frequently overlooked, The Mambo Kings is a fine piece of entertainment with excellent repeat value. The DVD has nice picture and sound, and a decent audio commentary. I recommend it heartily.