Tuesday, August 03, 2010

On Tour with Leon Grieco: Mundo Alas

Latin American folk-rocker León Gieco might not be a household name in this country, but he has the clout to get personal projects close to his heart produced in his native Argentina. Take for instance his latest touring ensemble, consisting of largely heretofore unknown artists. In an ambitious paying-it-forward endeavor, Gieco recruited a band of physically and developmentally challenged musicians and dancers for a tour across Argentina recorded by Gieco and his co-directors Fernando Molnar and Sebastián Schindel in the documentary Mundo Alas (trailer here), which opens in New York this Friday.

Gieco seems like an approachable guy, and evidently a number of aspiring musicians with compelling circumstances have done so over the years. More than a good sport, Gieco brought a quite a few up on-stage with him over the years. What started as a series of one-offs became a formal concert and then a full-fledged tour, with documentary cameras duly in tow.

As Gieco assembles the tour and shepherds the musicians on the road, not a lot of drama unfolds on-screen. That was probably a very good thing for everyone’s sake at the time, but it does not add much spice to the film. Indeed, everyone seems to get along swimmingly together, concurrently developing as artists thanks to Gieco’s sensitive tutelage. It even ends with wedding bells for one couple, so it hardly appears to be a case of selective editing.

Fortunately, a number of the Mundo artists are quite promising musicians. Perhaps the most notable are Alejandro Davio, a blues influenced guitarist living with congenital hydrocephalus, and Carina Spina, a blind folksinger whose style is particularly compatible with that of Gieco. Indeed, their duets are quite memorable. Probably the most experienced Mundo musician is Francisco “Pancho” Chévez, a mouth harpist and vocalist born without extremities who has been laying it down in some rough looking road houses for years.

All of Mundo is achingly well intentioned, and to give credit where it is deserved, Gieco seems to have a natural understanding of how to encourage his protégés without sounding condescending. Still, there is something about the tour’s apparent lack of precedence in Argentina and its novelty attraction that gives one pause. After all, the fact that these musicians have talent should not be such a revelation (hello, remember Ray Charles and “Blind Willie” McTell, among others?).

Perhaps they are getting there. The musicians definitely express hopes that their Mundo experience will lead to more opportunities for them on the back end, and as the closing titles inform viewers, most have since recorded their own solo CDs. Good for them, because Gieco and company definitely showcase some genuine talent in their documentary.

There is indeed some very nice music in Mundo, if not a lot of surprises. While it might be about as manipulative as film can get, it certainly means well. It opens this Friday in New York at the AMC Empire 42nd Street, with Gieco performing live before the 8:15 screenings over the weekend (8/6-8/8). He also performs a full concert this Thursday (8/5) at the Queens Theatre in the Park.