Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival
The true test of a great documentary is its ability to make you care about something you normally would have absolutely no interest in. I don't watch high school basketball, but I couldn't turn off Hoop Dreams; my lack of inherent curiosity in Bible salesmen didn't make me any less rapt during Salesman . Safinez Bousbia's El Gusto, for all of its good intentions and effort, doesn't quite pass that test. It concerns a group of men who have dedicated their lives to Chaabi music, a guitar and lute-heavy mix of Andalusian, Berber, Arabic, and Flamenco sounds, and while these ears recognize and appreciate the craftsmanship of the music, it's not really my cup of tea--and though El Gusto has a few good stories to tell, it ultimately didn't change my mind, or make my initial impressions irrelevant in the way the best documentaries often do.
The music was all the rage in 1940s era Algiers, and the common love for it brought together players of both Jewish and Muslim faith. It was, by definition, a popular music--"for people like us," as one of the musicians recalls--and there was no shortage of opportunities for them to play. But it all stopped in 1954, when the Algerian revolution and fight for independence changed everything in the country, including what music could be played and what businesses could host it. Bars, restaurants, and brothels were closed by the handful; many of the players ended up in France, where they were jeered as "Pied Noirs."
This historical material is the most compelling in the picture, frankly; their personal recollections of that contentious time are lucid and gutsy, and one can't help sympathizing with their complaints about the lack of respect for musicians, and the inability, in post-independence Algiers, to make a living doing it.
The entire film, in fact, is enormously respectful--both of their past triumphs, and the sadness that is so much a part of their lives now. That respect is present in how Bousbia frames her subjects, both in their interviews and their moments alone with the music (the way one gingerly places his cigarette on the piano keys as he goes to play says more about their relationship to these songs than reels of talking heads). The photography is gorgeous, vibrant and colorful even when detailing the crumbling of the casbah. And there is no question that the eventual--and probably inevitable--reunion sequences are heartwarming: "We were separated 45 years ago," one says, "and I never forgot them."
There is an undeniable Buena Vista Social Club vibe in those reunion scenes, felt in the class and professionalism on display in their triumphant concerts. Yet this viewer was curiously unmoved at the picture's conclusion, and the self-congratulation of Bousbia's final voice-over is tacky and all wrong. (She's a rather intrusive first-person presence throughout the film.) There's nothing particularly offensive about El Gusto, but nothing all that vivid or penetrating either. Maybe you just have to like the music.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.