The Political Musical: A New Genre? By Ronald Melzer

in 27th Havana International Festival of the New Latinamerican Cinema

by Ronald Melzer

Havana today. Two musicians, about 25-years-old each, try to make a decent living while wanting to make substantial progress in their careers. Good friends, they both lead a rock group still without any album on the market. It is one of those bands that have played exclusively for their closest acquaintances. Aware of the fact that neither the official policy of the government nor the social circumstances can favour their professional development, they spend their time rehearsing in solitude, seducing women that might help them forget their anguish for a while, cheating colleagues and friends, and dreaming of some producer who could take them out of the routine and, perhaps, the poverty of Cuba. The producer finally appears; she comes from Spain and decisively changes the lives of both leads, but also takes the film away, at least on the surface, from the tone of rock musical comedy to a political parable.

There is an acceleration of the marital crisis of one of the leads which comes about because of his wife’s decision to emigrate to Miami. For the other, the fact of leaving Cuba is a matter of principle more than merely economic convenience. However, the film never quits its comic tone typical of this (sub)genre. The reason for all this is that Spanish director Benito Zambrano, who lived and studied filmmaking in Cuba for several years, really wanted to give us, among other things, a musical comedy on the lines of those starring Marisol or Joselito, two of the most commercial Spanish singers of the 60’s. In one way, Zambrano doesn’t scorn such an underrated, genre. From the very beginning, he respects its rules: Havana Blues has plenty of catchy songs, the rhythm never stops and neither does the local color, nor does the merriment and the energy of a couple of characters for whom musical success comes before other urgencies. It is a personal, passionate, affectionate look at his dear Havana and his beloved Cuba, without ignoring the political parable that audiences would understand.

This is all done with a purpose, the purpose of telling us a believable, true story of Cuba today, showing a conflict between equals, a conflict at which each one of the characters is right in his own way. He also manages to comment on the economic and moral miseries that make much of life ugly. He attacks both the capitalist system and the socialist bureaucracy, throws poisonous darts at Spaniards who exploit some artists with no vocation to play the role of political militants.

Havana Blues has many virtues and a few shortcomings. Some of the performances are uneven. The Spanish musical producers, the “bad guys”, properly fulfill their function, nevertheless, their sudden disappearence is too convenient. But what really matters is the tremendous power of communcation that Zambrano has been able to establish with an audience that becomes his accomplice without having to resort to demagogy.