Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Cuban, Featuring the Music of Hilario Duran

Afro-Cuban jazz exploded in late 1940s New York when Dizzy Gillespie collaborated with musicians like Mario Bauza and Chano Pozo. The fictional Luis Garcia was very much a part of the scene, but he had disappeared by the time of the second Afro-Cuban boom in the 1980s. Sadly, the years were not kind to Garcia, but a young care-giver at his long-term nursing facility reawakens some of his memories through good music and good food in Sergio Navarretta’s The Cuban, featuring the music of Hilario Duran, which opens virtually this Friday.

The Canadian nursing home staff only knows him as “Mr. Garcia,” whom they consider “difficult.” He hardly ever eats and he will lash out from time to time. However, Mina Ayoub notices his Benny More poster, so she starts humming one of the Latin Jazz songs she learned from her grandfather, which seems to get a glimmer of recognition from Garcia. Soon she is sneaking him Cuban food (in violation of the head nurse’s strict rules) and letting him listen to Afro-Cuban jazz during meals.

Ironically, Mina’s sudden deep dive into Cuban culture leads her protective Aunt Bano to suspect she is getting carried away with a man. As it happens, Ayoub has started seeing Kris, a grad student, who has some expertise in vascular dementia and music therapy, but she hasn’t let it get serious yet. Since they still maintain social ties with friends and family from Kabul, it would be difficult for her to pursue a relationship with a non-Muslim, as her cousin’s recent arranged marriage awkwardly illustrates.

Navarretta and screenwriter Alessandra Piccione pull off a tricky balance, allowing Ayoab to make just enough of a connection with Garcia to justify the film’s enthusiasm for music therapy, without raising unrealistic expectations. Sadly, he will never be self-sufficient or even lucid by any meaningful standard, but he might just play again. Of course, Ayoab’s hazy resemblance to his great, lost love is an easy contrivance, but Navarretta and company try their best not to overplay it.

The best part is everyone involves understands the importance of the music itself. Duran composed, adapted, and performed a real-deal Afro-Cuban soundtrack. His opening theme captures the perfect tone of elegant melancholy, while tracks like “El Canonero,” “Mambo Rico,” and “Descarga En Changui” are exuberantly brassy and percussively rhythmic. Duran also puts his stamp on crowd-pleasing standards like “Guantanamera,” (one of the best versions recorded in quite a while, thanks one of several terrific trumpet solos from Alexis Baro). Plus, Alberto Alberto and lead actress Ana Golja contribute some soulful vocals.

The cast is pretty good too, starting with Oscar-winner Louis Gossett Jr., who resists the temptation of a big “acting moment,” portraying Garcia in a scrupulously realistic manner. Golja has good vocal chops, but also convincingly conveys Ayoub’s growing self-assurance as she comes out of her shell. Likewise, the great Shohreh Aghdashloo brings further depth and dignity to the film as Aunt Bano, who we come to understand survived great prejudice and disappointment in her native Afghanistan. Frankly, it is a little mind-blowing to see Lauren Holly playing the Nurse Ratched character, but she is as good as anyone could be in the thankless role.

There is not getting around it—getting old is a drag, but it is amazing how much good music helps. That is modest takeaway from
The Cuban, which Duran overwhelmingly proves. Honestly, it is so refreshing to see a film about jazz musicians that has confidence in the audience to appreciate the music they play. Very highly recommended, The Cuban opens virtually this Friday (7/31).