Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 02, 2015 8:56 am 
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A son's film homage

Paco de Lucia: Legende du flamenco/Paco de Lucía: la búsqueda is a documentary about the Spanish guitarist by his son Curro Sánchez (born Francisco Sánchez Varela). Its great virtue is that the music never stops, and some of Paco's more vibrant film performances are generously sampled or even allowed to play out to the end, the film telling the story of the guitarist's triumphant career in his own words and illustrating each stage with archival footage of performances or stills.

Paco is one of Spans most famous musicians of recent times. But we must examine his legend more critically than his son does. He is a primary exponent of the fast and loud adaptation of flamenco that is impressive, and reaches a wide audience, but also to some extent detaches the music from its rich cultural context -- the kind of vibrant excitement you get in an improvised flamenco "juerga," or feel (even if the scenes are more staged) in Carlos Saura's flamenco films. Paco's greatest inspiration and singer collaborator, he explains in life narration filmed by his son, was Camerón de la Isla (Cadíz-born José Monje Cruz,) again a widely known figure in contemporary flamenco music, but one whose smooth stye, though more "musical" and vocally wide-rainging, by the same token lacks a lot of the art form's usual harsh, raucous, passionate, and distinctive Andalusian element. Camerón's 1992 drug-related death at the age of 41 is not mentioned here, though Paco says theirs was more an artistic than a personal union because they were both so shy, Camarón even more "inward" than Paco -- who says at one point he has spent 80% of his life alone, of necessity, as an artist and a composer.

The film is perhaps best in its early part where Paco talks about how he picked up a guitar at seven and outplayed his older brother, about his early touring abroad, and about the inspiration of his impoverished father, who played flamenco guitar in taverns at night for pennies. It would be a distortion to say that Paco de Lucía was the greatest flamenco guitarists of all time, as some glibly do of late. How would we know that? Though he sought at once to transform flamenco and dig into its roots, purists have long disapproved of of his style, which Andrés Segovia said was notable only for its speed. This aspect of Paco de Lucía is only a prominent example of a popularization and dilution of flamenco, which flourished in the mid-19th century and has been fading for a long time, can hardly be blamed on Paco. But it would be nice if this film placed Paco and his brilliant career more firmly in the context of the history of flamenco music and other flamenco guitarists. One place where this does come is in the discussion of Paco's meeting with (and later support by) the earlier flamenco guitar master Sabicas (Agustín Castellón Campos), whom we see play in a film, and who is clearly an even more adept and smooth player than Paco if, perhaps, as noted, without as much passion. We only see one dancer, and hear two singers, and only a couple of flamenco guitarists are highlighted, so this is not a context in which we can evaluate Paco in relation to other players or the art of flamenco as a whole.

Paco's public image was burnished in Spain and abroad by his own band that lasted for 17 years and, notably included the cajón, a box-like percussion instrument traced back to slaves. But the most unique feature of Paco's career is his role in jazz-flamenco crossover through being the central member of the popular, long-lived and much-recorded "Guitar Trio" consisting of Paco, John McLaughlin (of Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew") and Al Coreal, Coreal later replaced by Al Di Meola. Jazz keyboardist Chick Corea was another collaborator. The Trio's" performances, marketed in popular live albums, are marked by resonant, metallic sound, rapid flow, and dazzling improvised riffs in which the three guitarists echo and play off each other. The performances are unified not only by Paco's percussive energy but by his rhythmic precision, noted earlier in the film as one of his most unique features as a musician and something that helped discipline dancers, one of whom he counseled to practice with a metronome. We hear and see an extended playoff of the "Guitar Trio."

These "Guitar Trio" performances may have made flamenco-style guitar virtuosity more well known, but they are more displays of showmanship than profound expressions of either jazz or Spanish music. They made Paco de Lucía world famous, at the cost of homogenizing his music. Nonetheless the film shows his profound dedication as a performer and his rigorous self-criticism, and his connection with flamenco was life-long.

Curro Sánchez's loving documentary, a rich amalgam of the subject's live narration and copious archival footage, was abruptly halted when Paco died of a heart attack at the age of 66. Understandably shocked by this sudden event, the filmmaker-son does not quite know how to end the film, and so the final moments drag on a bit, with yet another fiery live performance interspersed by short mere blips of home movies and stills from various moments of the life.

Paco de Lucía: la búsqueda ("Paco de Lucía: the Search"), 95 mins., debuted 20 Sept. 2014 at the Donostia-San Sebastián International Film Festival, followed by a limited release in Spain. It won the Goya Award for Best Documentary and was nominated for Best New Director and Best Editing. Other fests in 2015 including Miami, Seattle, and Vancouver. French release as Paco de Lucía: légende du flamenco ("Paco de Lucía: Flemenco Legend") was 28 Oct. 2015, French reviews generally favorable (AlloCiné press rating 3.4), though the extended musical scenes met with more favor than the conventional documentary format. Screened for this review 2 Nov. 2015 at Luminor Hotel de Ville, Paris.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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