Celia the Queen.
A Hispa Films presentation, in association with Perles Films USA, of a Kids in Exile Films production. Produced by Gabriel C. Mena, Michelle Zubizarreta. Executive producer, Antonio Gijon.
Directed by Joe Cardona, Mario de Varona. Camera (color, HD), Jose L. Vazquez; editors, de Varona, Michael Pertnoy; music, Bill Cruz, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Renoir Rodriguez; sound, Bill Cruz. Reviewed at New York Latino Film Festival, July 25, 2008. Running time: 84 MIN.
With: Celia Cruz, Pedro Knight, Johnny Pacheco, Andy Garcia, Gloria Estefan, Quincy Jones, David Byrne, Willie Colon, La India, Luxor Tavella, Wyclef Jean. (English, Spanish, Japanese dialogue)
More tribute than docu, Joe Cardona and Mario de Varona's film about the late, great Cuban diva Celia Cruz assembles dynamite archival clips, homages by Cruz's surviving musical costars, candid moments with Cruz herself and motley interviews with everyone from Quincy Jones and David Byrne to avid Japanese salsa aficionados. Conventional puff piece hardly covers new ground (unlike its subject, who broke race and gender barriers), but its wealth of performance footage from various stages of Cruz's career provides both a rousing nostalgia trip for fans and a crash course in guarachera genius for neophytes.
Filmmakers wisely keep biographical details to a minimum, concentrating instead on Cruz's fabulous voice, first discovered through a radio amateur talent contest, and her storied contributions to the Cuban music scene. An early blackand-white TV kinescope featuring her work as frontwoman for the hugely popular band La Sonora Matacera gets reprised several times; it's remarkable for its amazing sound quality, which does full justice to Cruz's rich, quasi-masculine tones.
Aside from the duly mentioned but never-milked irony of Cuba's greatest musical ambassador being banned in her homeland, pic eschews politics, choosing not to elaborate on Cruz's decision to flee Cuba and eventually emigrate to New Jersey.
Clips of concerts teaming Cruz with a variety of headline artists, among them Johnny Pacheco, Gloria Estefan, Willie Colon and Wyclef Jean, not to mention the seminal Fania All-Stars, attest to Cruz's constant desire to reinvent herself, as well as her tremendous influence on all forms of Latin music.
As long as it sticks to Cruz's music, and to the expansive, warm, exuberant woman who produces it, the docu basically can't go wrong. The problem comes in assessing Cruz's worldwide psychological impact. In chronicling what "the Queen" means to Cubans and music lovers around the globe, from taxi drivers to female impersonators, pic sometimes veers toward bathos. Striving to imitate their subject in her all-inclusiveness, the filmmakers merely attenuate the strength of her personality and genius using politicians' eulogies, extended clips of funeral processions and views from Celia's apartment as grieving hubby and fellow musician Pedro Knight peers out over New Jersey.
Black-and-white, dreamlike recreations of a beautiful, mysterious young woman making her way through a backstage area to stand in front of judges--an evocation of Celia inching toward her talent-show-launched destiny--are interspersed throughout, but add to pic's visual dissonance. Tech credits are somewhat uneven, but the sound quality is consistently superb.