Monday, November 16, 2015

Review: ‘The Latin Explosion: A New America,' on HBO, Is a Music Civics Lesson

 This is a really amazing HBO Latino music documentary titled, The Latin Explosion: A New America, that indeed doubles as a lesson in civics. It was wonderful to see the evolution of Latino identity in the U.S. through this documentary.  

It is so hopeful.  And it portends exceedingly well for diversity in the U.S., generally, and the lived, U.S.-Latino experience itself.


Marc Anthony, left, and Romeo Santos in “The Latin Explosion: A New America,” a documentary showing Monday on HBO. Credit HBO

The best moments come early in “The Latin Explosion: A New America,” an hourlong HBO documentary on Monday night. Desi Arnaz dancing with his conga and wailing “Babalú.” Rita Moreno laying down the law in “West Side Story.” A series of early rock ’n’ roll one-hit wonders matched with their real names: Sam the Sham, a.k.a. Domingo Samudio; Question Mark (of Question Mark and the Mysterians), a.k.a. Rudy Martinez; Cannibal (of Cannibal and the Headhunters), a.k.a. Frankie Garcia.
“Explosion,” a history and civics lesson in the form of a music documentary, traces a straight line through more than 60 years of Latin rhythms and fancy footwork. From Arnaz to José Feliciano, Celia Cruz, Gloria Estefan, Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, Shakira and Pitbull, it’s an unapologetic celebration of crossover commercial success, consistently grounded in stories of hardship and struggle. The capsule biographies, with their copious performance footage (the main reason to watch), are accompanied by statistics on the growth of the Latino population in the United States and occasional forays into political and cultural history, to name check figures like Herman Badillo or Cesar Chavez.
Fans of the music might note some omissions — no Enrique Iglesias, Christina Aguilera or Paulina Rubio, for instance. (Anacani, a singer on “The Lawrence Welk Show” who was many television viewers’ only connection to Latino culture in the 1970s, pops up on screen singing “Feliz Navidad” but isn’t identified.) Those same fans might note that the documentary was conceived by the music executive Tommy Mottola, who has worked with Ms. Estefan, Ms. Lopez, Mr. Anthony, Mr. Martin and Shakira. Mr. Mottola’s wife, the Mexican actress and singer Thalia, also appears.
The film is less a documentary than a very nicely produced public service announcement, something that would look at home as the centerpiece of a rally or a convention. The sense of commercial and cultural-political imperatives outweighing artistic ones grows as the timeline approaches the present day, and reaches its apotheosis in a segment on the buying power of Latinos. Pitbull is shown shilling vodka, Bud Light and Dr Pepper and says in an interview, “We’re a very loyal culture, that’s why products want us so bad because we’re loyal consumers.” At which point Chavez begins to spin in his grave.
But most of the documentary is devoted to music, and the sounds and images help the time pass easily enough. From the joyousness of Arnaz, to the polyester splendors of the 1970s salsa scene in New York, to the supreme showmanship and clarion voice of Mr. Anthony, “The Latin Explosion” is a convincing statement in an argument that was won long ago.

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