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Film Review: Playing Lecuona

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Featuring: Chucho Valdés, Michel Camilo, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Omara Portuondo, Ana Belén, Raimundo Amador, Esperánza Fernandez.

MI0002864486PLAYING LECUONA is a musical travelogue and tribute to the Cuban pianist, composer Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963), arguably, one of the most important musical figures of the early 20th century and beyond.

In a career that spanned seven decades, he composed roughly 800 songs and piano pieces, theater works (zarzuelas, operettas, theatrical revues and an opera), orchestral scores, pieces for piano and orchestra, violin works, trio ballets and film scores.

The film features three of the maestro’s most famous descendants – Chucho Valdés, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba – who double as narrators and contemporary interpreters of Lecuona’s music.

In some respects, Playing Lecuona reminded me of the movie, Calle 54 (2001), which set the standard for films of this nature. But, where the two differ is the manner in which Playing Lecuona gets “inside” the artist’s creative process and the music.

High points include Chucho and vocalist, Omara Portuondo’s dramatic interpretation of En Mi Corazon (Always in My Heart); Michel Camilo and Ana Belén’s sensuous take on Siboney; the fiery give and take between Rubalcaba and Spanish guitarist, Raimundo Almador on Andalucia; and Danza de Los Nanigos featuring Los Muñequitos de Matanzas.

Where the film falls short is the lack of biographical information. The pianists pay tribute to Lecuona, share anecdotes and make reference to various periods in his career but there is little to no mention of his youth, his formal training, why he left his native Cuba and never returned, why he vowed he would never play again until Cuba was free of Communism, the events surrounding his death and other relevant facts. That aside, Playing Lecuona is a veritable feast for the eyes and ears.

The showing was, followed by a Q & A with Michel Camilo, who took questions from the audience and talked about Lecuona, the director’s vision, the making of the film and a grand finale, featuring Chucho, Gonzalo and Michel on the same stage, that sadly, never saw the light of day due to budget cuts.

Michel Camilo sums up Lecuona’s legacy: “As a composer, and as an artist, you dream that your work will live on and that everyone will love it. Lecuona must be smiling in heaven.”

Many thanks to the IFC Center and The Blue Note Jazz Festival for making the showing possible. Here’s hoping that, the film returns to New York in the near future.

DIRECTED BY Pavel Giroud, JuanMa Villar Betancort
Country: Colombia, Spain
Language: Spanish
Subtitles: English
Running Time: 114 min
Production Year: 2015
Category: CineDwnTwn Galas, Knight Documentary Achievement Award, Reel Music

A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject.

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