In a Mexico City recording studio in 1999, the planets aligned. At the center of the jubilant cross-cultural, intergenerational music sessions was Francisco Fellove Valdés, stage name El Gran Fellove, who half a century earlier had combined Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz to create a new style of scat singing. Overseeing the project was Joey Altruda, a Los Angeles-based bandleader and producer, and filming the event “guerrilla-style” was his pal Matt Dillon, who was fresh off the success of There’s Something About Mary and hadn’t yet directed a feature.
The fate of those recorded tracks is revealed at the end of the 20-years-in-the-making El Gran Fellove, Dillon’s second film as a director (after the 2002 narrative feature City of Ghosts). But more crucial than any particular turn of events is the film’s celebration of creativity and friendship.
Building upon his 1999 footage with new interviews and an evocative assortment of archival clips and stills, Dillon honors the spontaneity and exuberance of his subject. “To follow him you have to be very open,” one interviewee says of Fellove’s innovative approach. The same might be said of Dillon’s film; this is no straight-line, neatly organized chronological biography but a portrait propelled by an instinctive, extemporaneous vitality. Early in the doc, Dillon declares his love for the cracks and flaws in his old bongos, and that wabi-sabi aesthetic carries through El Gran Fellove, with its appreciative eye for scratched-up photographs and lived-in interiors. The bilingual film (alternating between English and Spanish subtitles), which premiered at San Sebastian, should click with musical seekers as well as aficionados of Cuban jazz.
First seen scatting to guitar accompaniment on a sunny Mexico City street in 1999, when he was nearing 80, Fellove (who died in 2013) bounds off the screen as a born performer. In the studio too, music pours out of him, his face lighting up when he’s singing. But Dillon also captures the moments of tension and fatigue for the onetime star, who was recording for the first time in two decades.
The young session musicians were thrilled to be working with him, and despite the language barrier, Fellove quickly bonded with producer Altruda (who was also part of the band, playing stand-up bass) and with Dillon, having no knowledge of his movie stardom. Old friends joined the lineup: The high-spirited trumpeter Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros arrived from New York to record with Fellove for the first time, and the genial Celio González, who like Fellove had emigrated from Cuba to Mexico, was clearly delighted to be sharing the mic with him.
Fellove’s story is also the story of a larger emigration, that of the Cuban musicians who left their pre-revolution island home for Mexico in the 1950s (Fellove made the move in 1955). As singer Dandy Beltrán, one of those émigrés, notes, many of them were Black, Fellove included, and, in stark contrast to the slim opportunities and racial discrimination in Cuba, they found a country where they were “treated with kindness” and where recording and film studios eagerly welcomed their talent. Singer Sylvia Cuesta recalls how loved and respected she felt in Mexico.
Dillon, who started visiting Cuba during the post-USSR Special Period of the ’90s, provides a glimpse of Fellove’s childhood home in Havana and chats with one of the singer’s surviving neighbors, as well as a nephew. He traces the rise there, in the ’40s and ’50s, of the filin (feeling) and descarga musical genres and of Fellove’s “chua-chua” style, which used the human voice to imitate brass and percussion instruments. He explores Fellove’s three-month return to Cuba in 1979, long after he’d become a star in Mexico, as a shining and poignant example of showbiz second chances. He focuses less on the nation’s political transformation than on the shift in musical tastes: It was the height of rock ‘n’ roll predominance. Singer Gema Corredera, a teenager at the time, recalls that until a TV appearance made the visiting Fellove an overnight sensation in his homeland, she had never heard of him — even though his song “Mango Mangué” had been famously interpreted by such international stars as Celia Cruz and Tito Puente.
There’s plenty of info, and many insightful testimonials from friends, colleagues and experts (and comical counterpoint courtesy of one naysayer). The profusion of musicians, composers, musicologists and historians, past and present, can feel overwhelming as their names fly across the screen. You might want to know more about every one of them. But the film’s essence is its loving caress of its interview subjects’ faces (the rewardingly intimate cinematography is by John Pirozzi and Carlos Rossini) and its regard for their voices. Beyond its affectionate and stirring remembrances of one man’s final years, El Gran Fellove is a tribute to an art form’s elders. (Armenteros would die three years after Fellove, González in 2004, Beltrán in 2019.)
The friendship between the director and Altruda (who serves as a co-producer) is as central to the film as Fellove’s various musical partnerships. In their shared passion for vintage vinyl and, more crucially, for the artists who made the records, New Yorker Dillon and Angeleno Altruda are more than mere collectors. Their project’s progress might have stalled for years, but there’s no question that Fellove was energized by the experience. Dillon is with him, in 1999, as he strolls through his Mexico City neighborhood, joy and gratitude personified. “I was born like this,” he tells the filmmaker. “I don’t like routines.” And then he adds, in what might be an apt summary for his life’s work, “I like people who invent things, who can teach me how to be alive.”
Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival (Official Selection)
Production companies: Pregon Productions, Viento del Norte Cine, Paloma Negra Films, Insurgent Media, RadicalMedia
Director: Matt Dillon
Screenwriters: Josh Alexander, John Turner
Producers: Carlos Sosa, Cristina Velasco, Zara Duffy, Fisher Stevens, Demet Öger, Jonathan Gray
Executive producers: Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements, Carolyn Hepburn, Jon Kamen, Justin Wilkes, David Sirulnick, Erik Gordon, Ken Pelletier, Julie Nives
Directors of photography: John Pirozzi, Carlos Rossini
Editor: Jason Cacioppo
Music consultant: Rene Lopez
International sales: UTA
In Spanish and English