Omara


The vitality and joy of Omara’s performance still lights up the stage after all these years.

(2021) Music Documentary (Fourth Agreement) Omara Portuondo, Rolando Luna, Ariel Portuondo, Lester Hamlet, Santiao Alfonso, Arturo O’Farrill, Telemary Diaz, Satomi, Diego El Cigola, Rossio Jiménez Blanco, Yoshiro Hiroishi, Xiomara Vidal, Irene Jardines, Chucho Valdés, Aymée Nuviola, Roberto Fonseca, Pura Obrega. Directed by Hugo Perez

The undisputed grand dame of Cuban music is Omara Portuondo. She came to public notice back in the pre-Revolution days as part of the Cuarteto d’Alda along with her sister Haydee; they were mainstays at world-famous venues like the Tropicana and the Copacabana in Havana. But the revolution came and with it many thousands of Cubanos left the country, including Haydee who moved to Miami while Omara remained in her beloved Cuba. The two sisters have scarcely spoken since.

She is best-known here as a member of the original Buena Vista Social Club organized of veteran Cuban musicians by Ry Cooder, whose recording and concerts were filmed by Wim Wenders and led to Cuban music being discovered in this country in a big way. However in Cuba, Omara is clearly revered (and rightfully so) as a legend and a national treasure. She has been compared to Billie Holiday (and rightfully so) because of the emotional resonance of her voice; listening to her sing doesn’t just appeal to the ears but to the heart as well.

She is the child of an interracial marriage, something absolutely unheard-of back in the 1920s when her parents were first married (her white mother was disowned by her family for marrying an Afro-Cuban man), and long-time friends describe that she was the target of abuse because of it, although that is obviously no longer the case. Her voice is both seductive and sweet, caressing pop and folk songs from her native land with equal fervor. And for a 90-year-old woman, her voice is astonishingly pure; as people age their voices tend to get rougher but she has managed to avoid this. When asked her secret, she plays it coy but I’m certain there’s some sort of miracle involved.

Her story isn’t well-known here nor is her music, two compelling reasons to see this documentary. Being of Cuban descent, I do lament the continued embargo that is still in place and has accomplished exactly nothing; Zero. Zip. Nada. It has robbed America of generations of beautiful music, great baseball players and of enjoying one of the most beautiful places on earth. It has split families and robbed Cuba of the energy and drive that has been transferred to the U.S. by those who came over. It is long past time for the embargo to go away and for us to stop being idiots about communism. Cuba poses no threat to us. I’m no fan of the Castro regime, but both Cuba and the United States would benefit from the end of these unnecessary restrictions. If you don’t believe me, that’s okay; see this documentary anyay and just enjoy the wonderful music of a consummate artist.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is lilting and seductive. A lovely introduction to an artist who deserves more recognition in the United States.
REASONS TO AVOID: The non-linear storytelling may confuse some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Omara has been managed by her son for nearly forty years.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: DOC NYC Online (through November 28)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Buena Vista Social Club
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Children of the Enemy

Los Ultimos Frikis


Heavy metal thunder.

(2019) Music Documentary (Cinema Tropical) Diony Arce, Hansel Arrocha Sala, Eduardo Longa, Ivan Vera Munoz, Yamil Arias, Alberto Munoz, Dario Arce. Directed by Nicholas Brennan

When thinking about where great heavy metal originates, the first place that would come to most people’s mind would not be Cuba. Yet Zeus, an iconic band in their home country, has been (head) banging away for thirty years in an atmosphere not always favorable to rockers. Early in their career, the band was often hassled by police and frontman Diony Arce spent six years in jail for unspecified violations. Rock and roll was considered a capitalist tool and was effectively illegal in Cuba.

Filmmaker Nicholas Brennan spent ten years in Cuba documenting the band as they are affected by the tides of political trends; eventually the Cuban government relented and allowed the band to play at a Havana venue called Maxim Rock once a month; for their 25th anniversary the group was even allowed to tour the island (which makes up the bulk of material in the documentary.

The band members are individually interviewed with Diony coming off as introspective and a little less egotistical than his American counterparts. Lead guitarist Hansel Arrocha Sala is the musical force in the band and his dedication to his music is obvious. Drummer Eduardo Longa is candid about his love for drumming, but also about his drug and alcohol problems (apparently that is a rock and roll universal). Guitarist Ivan Vera Munoz is the young buck, happy to be a part of the band and bassist Yamil Arias rounds out the band.

It is notable that the band comes off looking and sounding like their counterparts anywhere else in the world. While Zeus does sing obliquely about political topics, they have to tread a very careful line lest the hard-fought government approval they enjoyed suddenly dry up; Diony speaks of the band having to essentially reflect Cuban revolutionary ideals in order to exist, even though the band often protests what they see are deficiencies in the Cuban government.

The tides of political change do effect the band; the death of Fidel leads to the relaxing of restrictions, allowing the band to play “officially” in Havana and occasionally outside of the capital. It even allows them to embark on the anniversary tour. Obama’s movement to normalize relations with Cuba further improves things for the band, although Trump’s reversal of that policy leads to a more restrictive policy towards American musical idioms. Currently in favor is the reggaeton form which the band members individually detest; additionally, rock bands are often assaulted by reggaeton fans who look with equal disdain on rock music.

When the Maxim Rock venue suffers roof damage, Zeus is left without a place to play and go more than a year without performing. This creates a good deal of despair within the band, who begin to question their future. Diony says flat out “the (government) made a fool of me,” referring to the years that the band compromised their message in order to be allowed to play.

However, the very short (73 minutes) documentary ends on a hopeful note and that should leave the audience exiting the theater on a bit of a high. I’m not a particular metal fan but their music sounds pretty strong. In a lot of ways, they are very much like a metal band anywhere else in the world; mugging for the camera, banging their heads in time to the music, enjoying the human demolition derby of the mosh pit, but they are unmistakably Cubano.

There is some lovely cinematography and some of the landscapes of the hinterlands as well as the urban cityscapes of Havana do show off the uniqueness of the country; one sees the Colonial-style architecture of Havana with the classic cars rolling around and one can only say “Ah, Cuba!” The film isn’t particularly hagiographic towards the government of Cuba but they aren’t necessarily hostile to it either. I would have liked a little more context in the movie; although we are told that Zeus is iconic  and essentially the godfathers of the Cuban metal scene, we never get an idea of how extensive the scene is. We also don’t get much of an idea of how their music is recorded and distributed. One wonders if it can be downloaded here.

The movie was going to be screened this very evening at the Miami Film Festival but sadly coronavirus fears have led to the remainder of the Festival being canceled. Hopefully the film will be screened in some way in Miami; there will likely be a fairly strong audience there for it.

The tittle translates roughly to “The Last Freaks” and it doesn’t quite convey what the term Freaks means in Cuban culture; it generally refers to long-haired rockers and is not quite affectionate; think how the term “Hippies” makes you react and you’ll have the general idea. Rock and roll was never a respected form of music in Cuba and it is on the decline there as we speak. Still, the movie is a fascinating look at Cuba which in many ways remains as mysterious to us Americans as Antarctica is. Maybe it’s time that changed.

REASONS TO SEE: Manages to make Zeus look like a typical heavy metal band while not shying away from their differences in circumstance. Some very nice cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little sparse on context.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film originated as a short film, Hard Rock Havana, which Brennan turned into a feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  Anvil! The Story of Anvil
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
White Lies