Movies about the Latino experience in America seem ineluctably tied to despair, whether rooted in the lives of East Coast Cubans and “Newyoricans,” of West Coast Chicanos, or of other groups in other places. After all, these are films about people whose homelands are tantalizingly near yet psychically far, whose adopted country both beckons them in and shuts them out. The link between such disparate films as the fablelike The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, the shimmeringly tragic El Norte, the worshipful La Bamba, and the cautionary Crossover Dreams lies in their knowledge of assimilation’s paradox: that you can live the American dream only by losing your cultural soul. Even Stand and Deliver, the most hopeful of the bunch, sees high school math class as a pitched battle.
Two recent films add further shadings to the discussion. The Mambo Kings and American Me take place on opposite sides of the continent and in different eras; one’s a fantastical confection of hot music and doomed romance, the other’s a dour, moral crime saga — but both films fairly steam with the frustrations of being un extranjero in a strange land.
The Mambo Kings, a whittled-down telling of Oscar Hijuelos’ luxurious novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, is the more frank about crossing over to Anglo audiences. One reason may be that it was directed by New York art-gallery owner Arne Glimcher, a non-Hispanic neophyte out to prove himself behind the camera (he previously served as producer of several films, including Gorillas in the Mist). A more pertinent reason is that it’s about performers, two Cuban musician brothers out to prove themselves in the American pop-culture scene of the ’50s.
For Cesar (Armand Assante) and Nestor Castillo (Antonio Banderas), el norte promises both the mass recognition achieved by their countryman Desi Arnaz (played here by Desi Arnaz Jr.) and a market where their fierce musical polyrhythms can flourish undiluted. The latter is apparent in an astonishing early scene at New York’s Palladium, where Cesar climbs on stage to grab the timbales away from salsa legend Tito Puente himself: Bright, brassy, edited with a delightfully hard swing, this sequence is among the most musical moments in recent movies (a stereo hookup is a must for video). It represents everything the Castillo brothers could hope for in America.
And everything they stand to lose. The flip side of The Mambo Kings is how compromise — and the refusal to compromise-keeps that moment from ever being savored again. Unfortunately, the drama goes downhill with the band’s career. Glimcher is too raw a director to sustain the style necessary to keep this corn popping, and Banderas is hunky but pallid as the tormented Nestor. Yet Assante practically defines movie charisma here-never mind that he’s of Italian-Irish, not Spanish, extraction-and the music cannot be denied. The Mambo Kings aims high and misses, but the attempt hits enough magical notes to be worth at least an overnight rental.
American Me aims all over the place. Director-star Edward James Olmos (Miami Vice) has become a vocal leader of the Latin-American film community (he speaks to youth groups around 150 times a year), but that conscience doesn’t make for powerful filmmaking. Brutal, sincere, and solidly filmed, American Me loses far less in the transfer to video than the gaudy Mambo Kings. The movie traces the sordid life of jailhouse drug kingpin Santana Montoya from before his birth (when his mother is raped by sailors during the World War II ”zoot suit” riots in L.A.) to his eventual renunciation of violence — which, since Montoya’s entire life has been built on a macho contempt for ”weakness,” is a fatal decision.
Olmos announces his pretensions right in the film’s title (not to mention his portentous narration spoken in rhyme): Even if the Montoyas of this country live outside gringos’ consciousness, even if their unbending criminality represents, to them, a rejection of the country that has rejected them, they’re still Made in the USA. That’s the intended message; the movie itself plays out differently. As actor and director, Olmos plays it so close to the vest that you’re never sure how to read the story. Part of the problem is that his need to preach to a young, urban audience collides here with his desire to portray the criminal life in exacting, near-documentary detail. In other words, he strives for realistic agitprop — and that’s a beast that simply can’t exist.
American Me is based on an actual person, though, and Olmos himself is a product of the East L.A. neighborhoods he filmed in. That arguably makes American Me a more genuine expression of a specific group of people-in this case, Mexican-Americans in Southern California — than The Mambo Kings. The irony is that, for all of Olmos’ credentials and intentions — and despite Glimcher’s freshman-director failings — The Mambo Kings remains the more genuine movie experience.
The Mambo Kings: B
American Me: C