(2015) Documentary (XLRator) Matthew Stoneman, Carlos Hernandez, Felipe Botero, Samuel Lazcano. Directed by Aaron I. Naar
If you go by the assumption that the best individual subjects for documentaries are those who fall furthest outside the mainstream of society, then Matthew Stoneman might well be the perfect subject. A mild-looking red-headed ex-convict mariachi singer from New Hampshire currently residing in Los Angeles, he regularly spends time in Cuba where he has spent seven years recording an ambitious record titled Una Historia de Cuba with Cuban musicians, including members of the legendary Buena Vista Social Club. He is often described in his press as the “gringo mariachi” which is fitting.
Facially resembling Bill Gates a little bit, Stoneman has a gentle, voice that is at odds with the typical big voices spawned by American Idol that dominate pop music at the moment. His songs express a good deal of longing, a kind of melancholia that cuts right to the heart. This is the kind of music that simply isn’t made in the American and western idioms; this is music from the Latin soul and it isn’t for everybody.
Stoneman, who uses the stage name Mateo and is addressed as such by the Mexican mariachi musicians he hangs out with in Los Angeles, plays in restaurants and scrounging for tips as well as at weddings, quinceañeras and whatever gigs he can find. He lives in an apartment that resembles an episode of Hoarders and saves every penny to fly to Cuba.
It is in Havana that he feels more at home, working with Cuban musicians on his ambitious record which as far as I could tell was original songs by Stoneman documenting the various styles of music in that Caribbean country as well as detailing its history. The Cuban musicians have accepted Stoneman as one of their own, a kindred spirit and praise his work ethic repeatedly, as well as his talent. While some will find his voice a little tentative, his low-key delivery is perfect for the tone and vibe of his music.
The documentary captures Stoneman in all his elements, and not all of them are savory. In the studio he is exacting, knowing exactly the sounds he wants to create but he collaborates with the musicians and accepts their input, sometimes with some contention but the experience looks to be joyful – certainly the musicians are having a good time.
Stoneman himself, though, seems more driven than happy. During the film he admits that he doesn’t have much use for friends and family and prefers to keep to himself which I believe is poison for an artist. He is clearly a lonely man, and his music reflects that; he could use a wider variety of emotions in his music with the caveat being that I’ve only heard what’s on the soundtrack – for all I know the rest of his music is upbeat and fun but something tells me that the melancholy dominates. When you deny yourself all the colors on your palate as a painter, your painting is going to be limited; so it is with music as well, with emotions being the colors that a musician employs. Still, the music I heard here is haunting and many viewers are going to be looking to order the CD the first chance they get although to be honest, I was unable to locate a website that it was available for purchase – my search was necessarily cursory however. If I find one, I’ll be sure to update this review though.
This isn’t a travelogue so the views of Cuba are more of the everyday life of the Cuban people and less of beautiful beaches and colonial architecture that we associate with the island nature, although there are some views of both. Mostly we get a sense of how Cubans live and while they don’t have a lot of the goods that we here in the States have, they don’t seem to miss them (it was refreshing not to see anyone carrying the ubiquitous cell phone around).
Stoneman does have a checkered past and while he doesn’t bury it, there isn’t a lot of detail about it in the film (most of the information as to what he did was culled from interviews I read with the filmmakers). It was while he was doing time for armed robbery that he was first exposed to the ballads that Mexican-American inmates listened to and sang, and he became so enchanted with them that he decided to give up on his career in pop music and concentrate on the beautiful Latin music that he became enamored with.
We do get a glimpse of Stoneman’s darker nature; he has a bit of a thing for Cuban hookers and there are several sequences detailing his search for them, including one fairly graphic scene in which he finds one to his liking. He is also a little bit confrontational from time to time, although you don’t get a sense that he has a temper; he never raises his voice during the course of the film. Not that he doesn’t in real life. Further, he is certainly estranged from his parents and the impression they give is that he abruptly severed ties with them; they seem a bit puzzled about it but the father is a bit fatalistic; he doesn’t expect that they will have any sort of relationship with their mercurial son for the rest of his days. Whatever rift exists between Stoneman and his parents is never detailed in the film.
Neither is the question of how Stoneman can afford to make his album. In Los Angeles he ekes out a hardscrabble existence, and yet the filmmakers state that the album took seven years and cost $350,000 to produce. That’s a pretty significant chunk of change and it doesn’t seem likely that an existence of tips and parties could produce that kind of cash, which if you average out would be $50K per year. Unless Stoneman has another job that isn’t shown in the film, the math really doesn’t add up; Los Angeles is a very expensive place to live.
Stoneman himself is a bit o a question mark; you get the sense that he is mostly a pleasant person and he is certainly driven and his passion for his music is undeniable. On the flip side, he doesn’t seem to let anyone in too deep; he can be affectionate with his friends but onscreen anyway he doesn’t seem disposed to revealing too much about himself. Personally, I would have liked to have gotten to know him better but something tells me that wouldn’t be possible in any case; some people like to keep others at a comfortable distance and Stoneman is clearly of that ilk.
In many ways this is a courageous documentary, and given the recent re-opening of the American embassy and the swelling movement of ending a half century of sanctions that have accomplished nothing and normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba, it is a timely one. Being the son of a rabid anti-Castro Cuban myself, I can only wonder what my late father would have made of Stoneman. I’m not sure he would have admired the man, but he certainly would have been fascinated by his music.
REASONS TO GO: Amazing music and beautiful images. An insider glimpse at Cuba. Enigmatic yet fascinating subject.
REASONS TO STAY: Stoneman not really forthcoming about his background, other than in broad strokes. The prostitute sequences may be offensive to some.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly rough language, brief nudity and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stoneman was arrested for fencing stolen recording equipment, breaking his leg while attempting to elude the police. He spent four years in prison for his crimes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :The Buena Vista Social Club
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Park Bench