All that glitters is not gold

Havana Blues by Benito Zambrano gives Cuba a refreshing young profile with its portrayal of musical talent on the island

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Havana Blues
Benito Zambrano
2005 (Spanish, English subtitles), Soda Pictures: Cuba, Spain, France
110 minutes

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

LATAMROB rating: ***

GORGEOUS babyfaced Ruy (Alberto Yoel) and Tito (Roberto Sanmartín) are happy-go-lucky friends who make hot music – and a living by trading cigars, meat and other goods in Cuba’s black market.

Two generations after their bearded revolutionary ancesters, both singers share the same preoccupations and face the same prospects: Cuba is a hotpot of musical talent, but its economy and crumbling infrastructure cannot make success á la western a viable option.

Ruy’s wife keeps the marriage afloat and makes sure their children eat and, being so well grounded, has just about had had enough of Ruy’s dreams.

One day, a couple of Spanish producers arrive at Cienfuegos and fate throws the two musicians in with them. Ruy and Tito take the Spaniards on a tour of the city’s true music scene, where they (and the viewers) are surprised to discover Rap and Punk artists singing shocking lyrics, black musicians singing about santería and other subjects apparently forbidden by the Revolution.

Both producers fall in love with the Cuban music scene – and even more eager to grant them the golden ticket to Spain is the lady producer after she sleeps with Ruy.

Exporting talent

To Ruy’s surprise, his wife is eager to export Cuban talent too – by leaving with the kids to join her mother in Miami – and the dilemma for all of the characters becomes “Should I stay or should I go?”

Benito Zambrano has fashioned a good musical, while presenting a very refreshing new image of Cuba as a place where regular blackouts or even poverty are not an obstacle for creativity. But this is not a rant about the virtues of socialism, and the director has been allowed to portray a generation of young Cubans accepting their lot, whose aspirations are the same to those of any budding musician in New York or anywhere in the world in return for pointing out the shallowness of life outside the island.

What Zambrano’s characters ask is whether success means an artist becoming an exportable good – or about being honest with himself.

Winner of Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005, Havana Blues is full of amusing observations that would otherwise turn the movie into a melodrama, such as the grandmother who is called “comrade” by her eight-year-old student.

Even if you are not into musicals you will find this movie enjoyable. Although the theme of a quest for celebrity is common (aka Fame, The Blues Brothers, etc.), just by placing it in Cuba gives it spark.

The characters are deep, casted well and convincing. As for the music, you may find the rap sounding weird in Cienfuegos and average compared with elsewhere (without a doubt a resource by the director to show what type of music is more original), but the rest of the songs are enjoyable if you are a fan of Caribbean sounds.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer