Sunday, April 13, 2008

HFFNY: El Benny

America had two Kings named Benny. Both Benny Carter and Benny Goodman were crowned Kings of Swing. In Cuba, there was only one El Benny. Benny Moré (sometimes Beny) straddled mambo, son, cha-cha-cha, and Afro-Cuban jazz, becoming one of Cuba’s most popular vocalists ever. He is the subject of El Benny (trailer here), Cuba’s officially submitted film for the 2006 Academy Awards (though a Cuban-British-Spanish co-production), which screened Saturday night at the Queensborough PAC as part of the HFFNY.

Directed by Jorge Luis Sánchez, El Benny follows the conventions of most music biography films. We see Moré scuffle early in his career, before he gets a few breaks and becomes a star. However, his self-destructive behavior (drink in Moré’s case) threatens to derail his career, as he hurts those he loves the most. Yet throughout it all, he stays true to his music. Maybe they are conventions, but they still work, particularly when accompanied by Moré’s music. Lovingly recreated by some of Cuba’s finest musicians, including the great Chucho Valdes, the music of Moré sounds fantastic in El Benny.

Renny Arozarena brings a dynamic presence to the lead role. His Moré is roguishly charming, but with more than a hint of danger contained beneath the surface. The film moves along at a brisk clip, but it is not well served by the many flashbacks—another frequent convention of music bio-pictures. At times it is tricky placing the year on-screen (I was actually five minutes late, so perhaps it is easier if you see it from the start—this area of Queens is hard to get around in).

The sad irony is there would probably have been more politics in El Benny had Hollywood produced it. The film frankly depicts Moré as almost entirely apolitical. The Batista regime is certainly cast in a negative light, but his goons are seen hassling Moré’s friends in only one relatively restrained scene. There is also a completely unconvincing scene of a former theater owner who appears to be happy training a revolutionary cohort to run his former business on behalf of the people. Nobody in the scene appears to believe it.

Moré is safe cinematic fare in Cuba because he never left after the Castro regime assumed power. However, his life was tragically cut short in 1963, just four years after the revolution. Who can say how he would have reacted to the precipitously deteriorating conditions in Cuba had he lived longer?

Regardless, the music of El Benny is the reason to see the film, and it is great. All his biggest hits are represented in lively renditions, including “Maracaibo Oriental,” “Como Fue,” and “Santa Isabel de las Lajas.” Even if the film is not widely screened in America, there would still be a demand for the soundtrack if it were released. The film itself is very entertaining, despite some flaws here and there.