A labor of love for director Fernando Trueba, Calle 54 spotlights the stars of Latin Jazz in a dozen lavishly staged musical numbers. In his narration, Trueba explains how he was hooked by Latin Jazz after hearing Paquito D'Rivera, and how he assembled many of his favorite musicians for the climax of his film Two Much. Now he sets out to give them more room to move.
Paquito shines with his band in the first number, 'Panamericana.' He's followed by Eliane El"as, a pianist from São Paolo who leads a trio in 'Samba Triste,' and Chano Dom"nguez, a Spanish pianist who combines jazz and flamenco influences. Trueba calls trumpeter Jerry González the 'poete maudit of jazz.' As Jerry leads his Fort Apache Band through 'Earth Dance,' playing both trumpet and congas, it's hard not to be startled by his bruised, bandaged fingers.
The film's showstopper is 'From Within,' a blazing crowd-pleaser by Michel Camilo's trio. He's followed by Gato Barbieri, who gives an amusing explanation for why he stopped being famous in 1982. Barbieri's warm, massive saxophone tone, famous from soundtracks like Last Tango in Paris, is still intact. With his fedora and oversized sunglasses and colorful scarves, he plays the grand old man of Latin Jazz.
But Tito Puente is the master showman here. His shrugs, grimaces and wagging tongue provide both the warmth and humor the film is often lacking. In his last filmed performance, he and his band swing energetically through the complicated 'New Arrival.'
Pianist Chucho Valds, son of the Cuban pianist Bebo Valds, plays the dense 'Caridad Amaro.' He later performs with his father, who left Cuba in 1960. Bebo and Cuban bass legend 'Cachao' work together for the first time in their long careers. And Chico O'Farrill, a master arranger whose career stretches back to the big bands led by Benny Goodman and Count Basie, conducts a spirited 'Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite.'
Through lighting and editing, Trueba tries to differentiate the songs, which were all filmed on a New York City soundstage. Still, he seems stymied by the more demanding material, and his strategies ultimately serve to homogenize the material, giving the music a repetitive feel. The quality of the songs varies as well. Paquito, Camilo and Barbieri manage to break out of Latin Jazz conventions. Other pieces are mired in Dizzy Gillespie clichs, or seem more propulsive than melodic.
The songs are broken up with short video interviews which rarely probe beyond simple biographical details. The few spontaneous moments are delightful, such as Bebo Valds greeting his son Chucho with, 'Hey, you're as fat as a toad.' Unfortunately, the film overall lacks the vivid personalities and exotic locales of Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club. Calle 54 calls attention to deserving musicians, but in an oddly cautious style that would fit comfortably onto a PBS fund drive.