Dialogue: Emilio Estefan


As a child in Havana, Emilio Estefan stunned his family when he proclaimed he wanted to pursue a career in music. Despite no musical background, Estefan doggedly pursued his passion after moving to the U.S. as a teenager. Three decades later, Estefan is a major figure in Latin music, with 14 Latin Grammys to his credit. Both an expert and enthusiastic champion of a vibrant musical genre he clearly loves, Estefan has now channeled his passion into a documentary called "90 Millas," which he shot while recording the album of the same name with his wife, recording star Gloria Estefan. Emilio spoke to The Hollywood Reporter's Kevin Cassidy about his foray into filmmaking and the need to preserve the history of Cuban music.

The Hollywood Reporter: What led you to make a film about Latin music?
Emilio Estefan: The album '90 Millas' came about because I wanted to do a tribute to Cuban music. In a way, I wanted to combine old and new. In the beginning I started using (contemporary) rhythms such as hip-hop, but also I wanted it to be traditional. So I invited all these amazing musicians like Carlos Santana, Jose Feliciano, Sheila E., Johnny Pacheco, Arturo Sandoval, Cachao ... the best of Latino musicians. So when I started interviewing them for the EPK, I thought, 'This is great information. This is the history of Latin music.' So I called up the label, but they said they had no use for it. So I said, 'Even if you can't use it, I want to go forward with it because this is information that we need have.' So I said, 'I want to do a low-budget film.' So I bought three high-definition cameras and decided to do it myself. So as we were recording the album I interviewed the musicians. But I started gathering some great information.

THR: Had you ever done anything like this before?
Estefan: Not a documentary, no. I have worked a lot in television -- I produced the Latin Grammys, the Olympics, Super Bowl. But playing with all these incredible musicians ... they are the best of Latin music, so they know all the history. For instance, the documentary explains how when Castro came to power they stopped recording, so a lot of the famous musicians went to New York. These musicians started combining sounds, stings, different kinds of percussion. You name it these guys recorded it.

THR: So what will people unfamiliar with this kind of music learn from the film?
Estefan: You will learn the sacrifice. How difficult it was for many years for us to preserve our music. How labels didn't want it. It was not welcome on TV or radio. For instance, when Jose Feliciano won his first Grammy he didn't have anyone around to congratulate him. Even his teacher forced him to not listen to Latin music in school. So there is a lot of information that people will maybe be surprised to hear.

THR: What kind of feedback have you received about the film?
Estefan: I did a mini-screening in Miami for some press and friends of mine, and at the end we got a standing ovation, and people were crying. It was an incredible feeling for me, because you spend two years filming, but you never know what kind of response you're going to get. You need to see people's faces, and at the end I saw smiles, and people were crying. It was a real mix of emotions. Some of the local press people also enjoyed it, and it was the same reaction.

THR: Were you surprised?
Estefan: I was happy! I think people will enjoy hearing about Latinos and the sacrifices we made. But also how lucky we were to live in the United States and to pursue the American dream and how, if you continue to believe in yourself and where you came from, you can succeed.

THR: So the film really chronicles the evolution of Cuban music from its beginnings to now?
Estefan: Yes, up to now. As a matter of fact, (Cuban music legend) Cachao was playing music in Cuba -- he was in the symphony when he was 13 years old -- and he used to play live music for silent movies. There is so much information in the film that people will freak out (laughs). Even for me it was surprising to learn some of these things. But it is important to look at this because in Cuba, being a Communist country, if you are a musician and you leave the country, they erase you from the history of Cuban music. You are taken out of the history books. Just look at Cachao, he is a guy who is very much responsible for a lot of Cuban music.

THR: So the film corrects a lot of misperceptions about Latin music?
Estefan: Absolutely. Many people don't have a clue. I was the person responsible for the Latin Grammys. I remember when I suggested it, they thought I was crazy. So I spent 14 years trying to find sponsors. But now when I look at I say at least it's a lot more diverse -- there are influences from Puerto Rico, Spain, Brazil. There is a totally different vibe now.

THR: Your enthusiasm for this music is palpable. It's not diminished at all after 30 years in the industry?
Estefan: No way. I love life.