Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Mambo Kings

"The Mambo Kings" (Arne Glimcher, 1992) Disappointing for everyone but fans of Armand Assante (who's terrific show-boating in a show-boating role). But if you're a fan of mambo (which I can be), or even a fan of the Pulitzer novel "The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love" (which is reduced down to its soapish roots), you're going to wonder what the point is. The mambo sequences (when they actually play mambo) are great, but too much time is spent on "The King's" signature song, which sounds like what it's designed to be—a 90's style MOR ballad for a singer of limited range like Julio Iglesias.* Mambo, it ain't. Period-accurate, it ain't. But as the song is composed by Music Supervisor (now Fox Music president) Robert Kraft with mediocre lyrics by the director, one suspects authenticity wasn't the point so much as lining their pockets with residuals.

Still, the film (the American film debut of
Antonio Banderas), does have Celia Cruz on hand (she's great) and Tito Puente (Tito was old when he filmed this, but you just can't buy his looks of shock at Assante's drumming simulations—Puente could play whack-a-mole with Assante's head before he could react). And there's a fascinating segment where "The King's" go out to Hollywood to appear on "I Love Lucy " at the behest of Desi Arnaz (Desi Arnaz Jr. does a pitch-perfect rendition of his father's reedy voice—now, there would be an interesting screen biography as Desi Arnaz was a Cuban refugee, mambo afficianado and entertainment entrepreneur, apart from his relationship with Lucille Ball). Glimcher and his technical crew do a great job of integrating Assante and Bardem and Arnaz, Jr. into the old show-footage.

But it's not enough. Banderas' character—the weak, artistic brother who has impulse control problems—grates most of the movie. And Assante's brash older brother with a head for business but without the brains to go inside it starts to resemble an empty suit, despite Assante's aggressive approach to the role. One also wonders about that fine Latino actress
Maruschka Detmers** as the wife of Banderas' character. It would be nice if a role so intrinsically Latin could be played by an ethnically appropriate actress. But, as with the soft-pedaled mambo influences, showcasing Cuban-Latino talent was not on the minds of the producers.***

The film feels soapy and safe, and completely misses the beat with none of the danger-given-precision of the music style contained in the title. "The Mambo Kings?" The makers screwed up—royally.

* The song "Beautiful Maria of My Soul" was nominated for a Best Song Oscar. It lost to "A Whole New World" from "Alladin"

** I'm being sarcastic here—she's Dutch.

*** And look, I'm not so close-minded that I think every role should be portrayed by an ethnically precise actor (if I did, I'd have to negate the entire career of Anthony Quinn!), but...I repeat...Dutch? Now, if you'll excuse me I have to go listen to my CD of "Robert Mitchum Sings Mambo"...

No comments: