'Camaron: Flamenco and Revolution': Film Review

Courtesy of Lolita Film
Flawed but fascinating.

Alexis Morante's documentary covers the life and times of the legendary Spanish singer who was the closest thing flamenco had to a '70s rock star.

Jose Monge Cruz, better known as Camaron de la Isla, was the greatest flamenco singer of his generation, making him long overdue for a proper filmic biography, given that Jaime Chavarri's 2005 biopic failed to deliver the goods. Alexis Morante's documentary Camaron: Flamenco and Revolution goes some way toward doing justice to the man whose voice, in the words of his friend and longtime guitarist Paco de Lucia, "evokes the desolation of his people." But the finally enigmatic nature of Camaron himself, plus the passage of time (he died at 41 in 1992), mean that although the film will be required viewing for flamenco fans, it's unable to peel back any new layers.

That said, this is an invaluable record, and Camaron's international following should bring TV sales, with sidebar screenings at Hispanic-themed festivals also a possibility.

The voiceover by veteran Spanish actor Juan Diego is lively, humorous and involved, the lines acted rather than recited. Camaron (which means "prawn," an uncle supplying the name because he thought the younger singer looked like one) was born into numbing poverty in 1950 Andalucia, going on to make a reputation at the legendary Venta de Vargas (Vargas Inn). The film charts, straight down the timeline, his years-long professional collaboration with the great de Lucia, a relationship that would later sour; the journey to Madrid to play, as the voiceover tells it, "for the foreigners"; his marriage; and his attempts to take flamenco international, including a performance with the London Philharmonic.

The Camaron legend in Spain is romanticized by his striking appearance; his addictions during the 1980s, when heroin was Madrid's drug of choice; his latter-day financial issues; and his tragic early death, which has given him "dead rock star" status. (The doc happily buys into this, but makes it quite clear, defying the lazy rumors, that Camaron sadly died from lung cancer and nothing more rock star-ish.)

Stunning scenes of his coffin being driven through the streets of his native Andalucia top and tail the story, thousands of people applauding in his honor — but these scenes apart, Morante's film is able to evoke only in brief flashes either the crucial importance that Camaron had for his culture or what really made him special as an artist. By his own admission, he was a man of few words, which doesn't help — as he says, what was key was what he carried inside him. The doc doesn't touch that, and it's unlikely that any film can.

While charting Camaron's rise, the script keeps an eye on the sociology, too, with particular regard to the cultural ups and downs of flamenco as it became a cool genre for the rich kids of Madrid. The 1979 release of the revolutionary flamenco-electric fusion Leyenda del Tiempo was rather like the '60s Bob Dylan going electric, a move which saw Camaron crucified by the stern purists who were still his idols. "People who don't like listening to it should listen to it more," was Camaron's advice during one interview. And they did — Leyenda sold just 5,000 copies on release, but is now widely hailed as a masterpiece.

For good measure, we even get a concise history of the persecution of the Roma community of which Camaron was a part, ending with their genocide at the hands of the Nazis (the Roma term for their own, rarely discussed Shoah is the Porraimos). It's necessary and fascinating, but what's it doing in this particular film?

Though the story and the history are gripping, stylistically Camaron is a bit of a mess, with none of the attempts to break away from the standard concert and interview footage really working out. The many vertical shots of horses poetically running through various appropriate locations (New York included), to symbolize the singer's free spriit, are pretty enough the first couple of times, but repeated too often, and the random animation sequences don't really work. There are also a couple of attempts to animate black-and-white photos by moving, reframing and zooming in on them, and during a labored effort to show how unwell Camaron was feeling during one of his final performances, the original footage is unforgivably tampered with.

With a subject like this, none of this embellishment is necessary. All you really need is footage of the man singing in close-up, from somewhere deep in his soul — intense, compelling, technically incredible — a music that reaches far back into the past. So it's with surprise and disappointment that the viewer reaches the end of Camaron: Flamenco and Revolution only to realize that the documentary hasn't found time for a single complete performance of any one of his pieces.

Production companies: Lolita Films, Mediaevs
Director: Alexis Morante
Screenwriters: Raul Santos, Alexis Morante
Executive producer: Jose Carlos Conde
Director of photography: Juanma Carmona
Music: Miguel Torres, Julio Revilla
Editor: Raul Santos
Sales: Film Factory International

104 minutes