'Jai Alai Blues': San Sebastian Review

Courtesy of San Sebastial International Film Festival
Lively, cautionary chronicle of an explosively spectacular game.

Gorka Bilbao Ramos' documentary on the lightning-fast sport premiered in the Basque section of the Spanish festival.

The fastest — and arguably most cinematic — of all sports gets rare big-screen exposure in Jai Alai Blues, a documentary from the Basque country that exhaustively examines the global fortunes and misfortunes of the area's prime cultural export. Squeezing a wealth of fascinating material into a 110-minute running-time, writer-director Gorka Bilbao Ramos crafts an entertaining if ungainly survey that occasionally clicks into stride. As a lively slice of offbeat, exotic social history — whose second half concentrates squarely on the game's checkered history in the United States — it appeals beyond the usual sports-doc demographic and should be checked out by festivals and channels specializing in non-fiction fare.

Its San Sebastian world-premiere was certainly timely, coinciding with the appearance of Scott Cooper's Boston-gangland saga Black Mass: Jai Alai, a lightning-quick ball-game (top speeds exceed 150mph) played in a long, theater-style courts known as a frontons, being one of the numerous activities that proved a lucrative conduit for Whitey Bulger's shady operations. Always intimately associated with betting — in a manner exceeded only by horse- and dog-racing — Jai Alai, also known as Pelota and Pilota, now survives in the USA solely thanks to its legally-enforced close association with casinos, attracting pitiful attendances to its cavernous, architecturally distinctive arenas.

Just a few decades ago, however, it was all very, very different. Previously a big deal only in Mexico (where its excesses were enjoyably fictionalized in 1952's lusty melodrama La noche avanza) and pre-revolutionary Cuba, Jai Alai experienced an explosive American boom in the 1970s — first in Florida, then up north in Connecticut (the Bulger connection) — that quickly propelled it into the national consciousness. These colorful, turbulent years prove Bilbao Ramos's main focus: superbly evocative archival footage is counterpointed by talking-head testimony from surviving players (young-at-heart legend Angelito Ugarte the most notable of several scenestealers) and management.

All of them shake their graying heads at the sport's disastrous decline in the late eighties and early nineties, a cautionary tale of how lucrative and vibrant activities of all kinds can succumb to mismanagement, greed, over-ambition and sheer bad luck. Numerous factors were involved in this bust - not least the "very bad things" that were going down in Miami at the time (not for nothing was a Jai Alai player prominently featured in the opening titles of Miami Vice). But the fundamental issue seems to have been a collision between American employment practices and the more 'European-style' expectations of the clannish Basques — Spanish and French — who provided the bulk of the 'workforce', and who eventually embarked on an epic three-and-a-half-year strike for better pay and conditions.

Bilbao Ramos duly traces the humble Basque origins of Jai Alai — "a past shrouded in mystery... an amazing universe" — and its success in 1920s Shanghai and 1940s Manila. He touches tantalizingly on the spectacular charisma of its first megastar, Guillermo Amutxastegi, who in his 1950s heyday mingled with prominent celebrities and was hailed as the Babe Ruth of the fronton. There's obviously a whole film to be made about the beefily handsome, swaggeringly unorthodox Amutxastegi, who has dwindled into obscurity while remaining revered by elderly Jai Alai aficionados.

Indeed, at several junctures there's a quart-into-pint-pot feel here, making the viewer yearn for a more extended, in-depth Ken Burns-type approach. Bilbao Ramos, whose background is in corporate video, handles his first feature-length effort with TV-style competence, aided by Hannot Mintegia's brisk editing and relying heavily on the near-incessant, generic score by 'Audience'. But even over the course of nearly two hours, he somehow never quite finds the time to satisfactorily explain the basic rules of Jai Alai. The result is a picture which, for all its entertaining and illuminating qualities, and for all its vim and vigor, never strays too far from a safely inside-baseball track.

Production company: Berde
Director / Screenwriter: Gorka Bilbao Ramos
Producer / Cinematographer: Zigor Etxebarria Enbeita
Editor: Hannot Mintegia
Music: Audience
Sales: Atera, Donostia-San Sebastian, Spain
No Rating, 111 minutes