Although it looms as one of the few G-rated movies of the season, “Calle 54” should not be mistaken for a conventional family attraction. A valentine to Latin jazz from the Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba, it presumes a long-standing fondness for and familiarity with the musicians showcased in a dozen recording-studio interludes.
The title alludes to the principal recording site, a Sony studio on 54th Street in Manhattan. Several of the participants are venerable figures. One, Tito Puente, a mambo king of the 1950s and arguably the reigning showman of the “Calle 54” ensemble, died last summer at age 77, before the movie could be completed. Another, the exiled, 82-year-old Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes, had a close brush with death soon after completing his scenes for Mr. Trueba.
“Calle 54” is determined to be performance-intensive, so it keeps the explanatory gloss to a minimum. In retrospect, it might have been advisable to incorporate more in the way of off-studio reflection, especially with the senior luminaries.
“The Buena Vista Social Club,” which rediscovered and celebrated a similar musical idiom, and “Genghis Blues” enjoyed a significant advantage in human interest. A compilation documentary of several years ago whose title escapes me also did a better job of recalling major creative influences on Latin jazz over the decades. “Calle 54” wont be a particularly informative starting point for outsiders or new enthusiasts.
Not that the movie lacks highlights or musical gratification, but a good deal of the time, I thought it might be more effective in a dance auditorium with a big sound system than a movie theater. If its at all feasible to book the movie someplace where members of the audience can dance in the aisles on impulse, the opportunity should be embraced. It begins to feel rather unnatural to remain in a sitting position as a dozen numbers meant to encourage spontaneous audience participation accumulate.
Mr. Trueba won the 1992 Academy Award for best foreign-language film with “Belle Epoque,” an engaging sex farce set in the early 1930s. He miscalculated with his first American project, “Two Much,” a misbegotten sex farce of 1996 that introduced Antonio Banderas to Melanie Griffith, provoking a romance on the personal level although failing to seduce a mass audience. Mr. Trueba takes the liberty of recruiting the composer of “Two Much,” Michel Camilo, for his “Calle 54” jamboree, which recalls certain passages of his score. Its conceivable that the earlier movies failure cost Mr. Camilo a fair shot at Hollywood, which probably could use someone who recalls Andre Previns keyboard virtuosity in a Latin style.
The numbers last long enough to expose the fact that the camera setups lack variation from performer to performer or band to band.
After the nth insert of an overhead view of hands on a piano keyboard, you begin to lose any sense of a privileged or revealing perspective. Theres one oddly unfortunate bit of family byplay, when Bebo Valdes greets his son Chuco, nearing 60, with the all-too-self-evident observation, “Youre as fat as a toad.”
To his credit, Chuco ad-libs a tolerant chortle and takes the hit in lumbering stride. Pop resides in Stockholm, so the twain may not get together that often. Because the younger Valdes does, in fact, look remarkably toadish, especially in the face, you wish dad had settled for a smile and a hug.