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Savant Short Review:

The Roots of Rhythm

The Roots of Rhythm
Docurama/New Video
1999 / Color / 1:37 / 150m. / Dolby Digital 2.0 / Originally The Routes of Rhythm on PBS
Hosted by Harry Belafonte
Cinematography Les Blank
Original Music Gloria Estefan, Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie, Desi Arnaz, Celia Cruz, Ruben Blades, Isaac Dviedo, King Sunny Ade, Xavier Cugat, Carmen Miranda, The Miami Sound Machine,
Writing credits Linda Post, Howard P. Dratch and Eugene Rosow
Produced and Directed by Howard P. Dratch and Eugene Rosow

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This 2-and-a-half hour PBS docu provides what even many devotees of Latin American music don't have - a good overview of where it came from.  Harry Belafonte hosts and narrates a dizzying three-part analysis of cultural and musical sources for modern Latin rock, offering short history lessons and visiting still-vibrant Cuban neighborhoods, where traditional roots still flourish.   Old 78rpm records are heard for some near-lost recordings, while important trends, from the 20's decade-long prohibition party in Havana, to the rise of Cuban-American music in the 80's, are fully covered.

The charm of The Roots of Rhythm is that you're watching something educational and you don't even know it.  Belafonte, a man who must share Dick Clark's secret of eternal good looks, is obviously excited about the topic and his enthusiasm is infectious.  When he is shown visiting Cuba and watching street performers, it's true interest in his face, and not just a photo op.   The Cuban history that is told, of balladeers being censored under the 1930's Machado rule, becomes very real when today's surviving Havana balladeers sing the same kinds of songs.  The feeling imparted is that when Cuba does open up to the U.S., all this culture will be in danger of being wiped out, or worse, co-opted by American commercialism.

The contributions of Spanish flamenco and African tribal rhythms are heard instead of simply being cited, with the result that we get a feel for the development of the Latin sound.  In the final third of the show, the threads established in the first two come home, as we see the various influences of the Latin movement in our movies, including but not limited to flashy pop icons like Carmen Miranda.   Even Latin-rhythm'ed cartoon characters are shown in an animated sequence.  Top talent, like Gloria Estefan, is interviewed in depth, as are some creators and innovators whose contributions were never acknowledged.  Naturally the huge subject can't be fully explored in just 150 minutes but what's here isn't superficial.  For the most part, it plays like one very long, very vibrant music video.

Docurama's DVD release of The Roots of Rhythm is a coup for music fans, especially considering that licensing all the diverse music clips must have been a nightmare.  The three episodes can be accessed one at time or all at once, and are indexed with six chapter stops each.  The extras section in the menu disappointingly contains only credits for the film, the DVD and Docurama.  Yet, even in plainwrap the show a musical bargain.  Color and especially sound are very good; just be prepared for the usual range of quality in the aged film clips and older video sources.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Roots of Rhythm rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent (Dolby Digital 2 track Stereo)
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: May 24, 2001

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