If your idea of Argentine music begins and ends with tango that is a great start, but there is a much fuller history to survey. Carlos Saura helped popularize the tango around the world with his Oscar nominated hybrid-musical Tango (the man likes simple titles, at least for international releases). Now he fills in the rest of the mosaic with Argentina (trailer here), a gorgeous performance documentary in the style of his previous Fados and Flamenco, Flamenco, which opens this Friday in New York.
There is no talking in Argentina (well maybe a bit of incidental convo, but that is just for behind-the-scenes flavor), just dancing, playing, and singing. In some cases, the latter is more like chanting. Saura is not fooling around when he goes for the folk roots. Some of the music performed for his camera is not so different on the Pampas or the Andes centuries ago.
Yet, much of the music is also profoundly sophisticated, like the treated piano stylings of Lito Vitale (the film’s musical coordinator), which sound as contemporary as anything you might hear at the Stone on any given night. Saura proves once again, he is the best in the business when it comes to capturing dance on film. In this case he has the added advantage of two wildly cinematic show-stopping numbers. The first features Koki and Pajarín Saavedra swinging the traditional (and usually lethal) gaucho bolas, with double-dutch abandon. Even more energized is the dance and drum circle formed by the Metabombo ensemble. Their moves and grooves are infectious.
Saura’s Argentina is packed with good musically evangelical intentions, but some do not pan out as well as others. Several of the traditional drums have a low, dry resonance that probably hits live listeners in their lower vertebrae, but are clearly difficult to recreate on film. Saura also incorporates tributes to leftist icons Mercedes Sosa and Atahualpa Yupanqui, but their black-and-white archival performances screened on large back walls to dwarf the reverent listeners, creepily evokes Big Brother from 1984, perhaps more rightly so than Saura intended.