'Playing Lecuona': Montreal Review

Courtesy of Montreal Film Festival
A lushly produced tribute boasting excellent performances.

Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona is remembered by those who fill his shoes today.

A top-notch performance-based tribute to legendary Cuban pianist Ernesto Lecuona, Playing Lecouna shows how his influence is manifest, a century after he stepped onto the world stage, in three of his most famous musical descendants. Latin jazz stars Chucho Valdes, Michel Camilo and Gonzalo Rubalcaba take turns riffing on the master's songs here, with filmmakers Pavel Giroud and Juan Manuel Villar Betancort ensuring we also see some of the places that inspired him. Though lacking the broad accessibility of a doc like It Might Get Loud, the picture is a treat for fans of any of these men or the (fluidly defined) genre they are carrying forward.

As the title suggests, this is not a biography — not even a little bit. Though the pianists paying tribute do offer anecdotes on occasion or make reference to periods in his career, we get no details of Lecuona's youth and schooling, no outline of the prodigy's rise to fame, and only a passing mention of his work for Hollywood. (In 1942, he lost the Best Original Song Oscar to Irving Berlin's "White Christmas.")

We do get just enough to justify the doc's globe-hopping nature. With his jazz trio, Camilo visits the Canary Islands, where Lecuona died; back home in New York City, he visits his grave. (Lecuona refused to be buried in Cuba so long as it was run by Communists.) At home in Miami, Rubalcaba is tied to the pianist's years in Florida, but he also goes to Seville to explore the composer's affinity for Andalucian music with flamenco singers and guitarists. Valdes, naturally, is our guide in Cuba, where he laments that the only monument to Lecuona is a simple, faded plaque.

The doc jumps round robin-style, giving each artist enough studio or concert-hall time to deliver a few pieces of Lecuona's repertoire in his own style. The performances are beautifully photographed (as are the tours through Lecuona's old haunts) and, thankfully, are presented without interruption. Guest performers, like the Buena Vista Social Club's Omara Portuondo, more than earn their keep.

Two choices of emphasis are slightly odd here. While it's understandable that Valdes would be talkative on the subject of his father Bebo, a close friend of Lecuona's who died shortly before filming, one wonders why the film would include these biographical details at the expense of its subject's. And with each of the three pianists working their way around to praising Steinway pianos, even touring us through the New York showroom, one might wonder if the brand underwrote the film as a covert advertisement. Neither factor, though, distracts much from a very enjoyable musical travelogue.

 

Production companies: Insularia Creadores, Igolai Producciones

Directors-Screenwriters: Pavel Giroud, Juan Manuel Villar Betancort

Producer: Juan Manuel Villar Betancort

Director of photography: Santiago Torres Marrero

Editors: Ximena Alejandra, Jose Jorge

Sales: Grupo Planeta

 

No rating, 114 minutes

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