Saturday, September 27, 2014

Flamenco, Flamenco, a film by Carlos Suara

In 1995 Carlos Suara made a film called, simply, Flamenco, featuring a variety of flamenco stars performing set pieces one after another in an abandoned exposition hall. Fifteen years later, in 2011, he did the same thing again, using some of the same performers while adding some fresh blood as well. 

Both films are worth watching, but Suara’s more recent effort, which only trickled into general release in the United States this summer, is the better of the two, and well worth seeking out on the big screen. 

Cinematographer Vitorio Storraro (The Last Emporer, Reds, Apocalypse Now, etc) shot the film, and the lighting is superb. Meanwhile, the painted theatrical backdrops, usually with a glaring sun or a haunting moon and a few stunted trees, evoke a world of Goya-esque mystery and emotion.

Most of the emotion, of course, is provided by the performers. Flamenco can be slow or frisky, grave or light-hearted, but it seldom fails to engage the listener on a deep level—the listener that’s attuned to it. The music follows different patterns of harmonic development from what many of us are used to, and the rhythms are almost invariably either irregular and jumpy or agonizingly slow. Even the most diehard aficionado probably wouldn’t want to listen to three seguiriyas in a row, but Suara mixes the material artfully, the same way as it’s done in live performance, with a lively tangos or alegrias thrown in from time to time.

One thing I noticed while watching Flamenco, Flamenco is that several of the singers whose work I’m familiar with have matured. Miguel Poveda, who sings three songs in the film,  if I’m not mistaken, has always had a strong but slightly nasal voice. It’s become deeper, a little rougher, and more powerful. By the same token, Nina Pastora has moved beyond the brassy, youth-oriented  singing of her early career to a new level of expression.

And then there is Estrella Morente. The daughter of singing icon Enrico Morente, the steps in her early career were made easier by the family association, and her light singing style was not highly regarded by all aficionados. But she, too, has matured, and though her lengthy number is slightly more pop-oriented than the others, it doesn’t seem entirely out of place.

Jose Merce, considered by some to be the “king” of the male singers these days, appears on an empty stage to sing a martinetes—one of the oldest flamenco forms. The singer is usually accompanied by nothing other than a hammer and anvil, and so it is with Jose. His voice is fully up to the task of negotiating the melodic turns back and forth from major to Phrygian mode, but the camera moves in too close, and the effect of the gut-wrenching music is slightly diluted by our unavoidable examination of the singer’s lips, gums, and teeth.

Among the featured guitarists Manolo Sanlucar and Paco de Lucia stand out. When Sanlucar showed up I was shocked. Could he still be alive!? Turns out (I looked it up) he’s in his early seventies, and his forceful style is as engaging as ever, while the three female back-up singers—a flamenco version of the Shirelles or the Chiffons—also contribute to the number’s lively flair.

Paco de Lucia is no longer with us, but his performance here reminds us why he was (and continues to be) held in such high regard. His touch is lighter, his harmonies more subtle than the other guitarists in the film. It’s very “flamenco” but has drifted into a richer and more ethereal domain.

The film’s third noteworthy guitarist (that is to say, a guitarist I recognized) is Tomatito, who played a few falsetas during Nina Pastora’s number. They were brief, and contained some distressingly “jazzy” bent notes, but it was fun simply watching him bob confidently to the rhythm and deliver effortlessly when called upon.

In the course of their inspired duet, pianists Dorantes and Diego Amador demonstrate that genuine flamenco can be produced on “classical” instruments, although the number is seriously compromised by the fact that the two pianists can’t seem to stop smiling at one another across the opposing soundboards.

As for the dancing, it’s here, perhaps, that flamenco has gained its greatest popularity … and also diverged most radically from the spirit of the genre. The film begins with star-dancer Sara Baras, who has had her own dance company, works as a model and TV personality, and has even (so I'm told) designed a popular line of lingerie. She appeared in a flowing red dress with no back to it, impressively thin and limber. But there was something a little self-conscious and theatrical about her piece.

Even worse was the long solo piece by Israel Galván. Wearing white suit and shoes, he darted in and out from behind back-lit panels with flamenco images painted on them. It was Marcel Marceau doing flamenco. The artistry and body control were exceptional, but the performance was so heavily spiced with abrupt starts and stops that it began to seem self-indulgent, wearisome, and almost random. Flamenco rhythms were nowhere in the vicinity.

The several highly choreographed numbers with eight or ten women dancing in ensemble were pleasant but hardly gripping. On the other hand, Farruquito’s number was outstanding. He appears as a young boy in Saura’s first flamenco film, dancing alongside his famous grandfather, El Farruco, with another one of his eminent relatives, El Chocolate, singing accompaniment. It’s a wonderful number. Here we see him again, at age 28 (just a guess) dancing up a storm in seeming improvisatory style, interacting with a full complement of stage musicians—guitarists, clappers, vocalists, and even a violinist.

(The boy who dances earlier in this film is Farruquito’s little brother, Paquera, clearly a chip off the old block.)

Farruquito’s number is one of the high points in the film, and the grand finale also belongs in the same category. Guitarist Moraito Chico sits front and center in the midst of what looks like an extended clan, as various family members sing or stand up to do a few solo turns on the dance floor. Moraito himself hands off his guitar and does a a few steps. True aficionados would probably recognize about half of the people in the ensemble. But it’s hard to keep up with all the flamenco clans without a key.

The good news is, the genre continues to develop, absorbing popular elements and creative innovations, without entirely sacrificing the gripping, primitive emotions that define that world. As director Suara said himself in an interview a few years ago:

“…flamenco is something which has surprised us all, to the extent that it is a way opening up towards the future. It has that possibility of being able to be very orthodox and also very heterodox... and even more heterodox.”

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