A musical anthology film which serves basically as director Fernando Trueba’s valentine to Latin jazz, “Calle 54” collects a series of finely-recorded, well-edited performances by some of the most notable artists of the genre, but does very little more than that. Neither a true documentary nor a very deep examination of the movement, it will certainly prove a pleasant quasi-concert experience, especially for those who are already fans of the featured performers; but since it offers only the most perfunctory sort of information on the development of the musical style it highlights, in the final analysis it’s more like a very good TV variety program than a penetrating cinematic analysis.
The structure of the picture is simple and straightforward. Trueba, the narrator, announces his admiration for Latin jazz, and there follows a sequence of portraits of the individual artists. Over a few shots of the featured performer on his home turf, Trueba briefly introduces his subject, usually with some laudatory words that come very near to the hagiographical (on several occasions he blithely refers to the music as “miraculous”). In some cases we then hear a few remarks from the artist, but in any event there soon follows a number by him (or, in rare instances, her). The pattern is occasionally altered: toward the close there are some duets, and in one case we follow a performer back to Cuba for a visit to his boyhood home. But in no case does this take us much beyond the surface, despite the good camerawork of Jose-Luis Lopez Linares and the skillful editing by Carmen Frias.
What matters here, obviously, are the musical numbers, and they’re vivacious and engaging. For all his obvious enthusiasm, however, Trueba doesn’t succeed in unifying his film or giving it the emotional resonance that Wim Wenders managed, for example, in “Buena Vista Social Club.” Nor does the picture go very far in explaining what sets the music apart (a talking-heads montage about the African origin of the style is so perfunctory that it’s almost laughable). What we’re left with is the remembrance of some fine individual moments which might very well send us to the CD bins, searching for further performances by the artists. “Calle 54” serves as a nice enough appreciation of some fine musicians, but it could have been much more.