He is 36 going on 16. Describing a scene in Mi Vida Loca/My Crazy Life in which James Brown’s ”Doin’ It to Death” blasts out of a souped-up candy-apple-red vintage ’50s Chevy full of Latina homegirls, John ”Jellybean” Benitez can’t help but use the word cool about 20 times. Benitez doesn’t look much older than a teenager either, walking around his music production company’s plush New York City office wearing bleached-white shorts and even whiter Air Jordans, and sporting a long black ponytail.
But, in the music industry, appearances can indeed be deceiving: Benitez just may be Hollywood’s hottest music supervisor, choosing the songs that give such movies as Carlito’s Way, The Shadow, and the upcoming The Perez Family (with Anjelica Huston and Marisa Tomei) their authentic sounds. For Mi Vida Loca, says Benitez, that meant ”trying to capture the Mexican-American lifestyle by using their classics to make it feel real.” And while he seems comfortably rooted in ”the biz,” light-years away from the Los Angeles barrio, it was only 10 years ago that Benitez, whose parents are Puerto Rican, was mixing and scratching records as a DJ in dance clubs in Manhattan and his native South Bronx — keeping kids like the ones in Mi Vida Loca dancing till it was light outside.
One of those sweaty, gyrating kids happened to be Madonna, whose 1983 bubblegum-pop song ”Holiday” was the first tune Benitez ever produced. After dating for ”about two years,” Benitez says, they went their own ways: He produced a string of hits (including two more by Madonna, ”Crazy for You” and ”Borderline,” and Whitney Houston’s ”Love Will Save the Day”) and got involved in movies, and she, of course, became the Material Girl. Benitez looks down bashfully: ”The rest, as they say, is history.”
Since then, Benitez has become an overnight authority on ’30s swing and cabaret music for the superhero action fantasy The Shadow, extravagant ’70s disco for Carlito’s Way, and Cajun rock for 1993’s The Real McCoy — as evidenced by the precariously balanced stacks of CDs springing up all over his office. In choosing the roughly 30 tunes for Mi Vida Loca, Benitez went straight to the local experts: ”I asked the gang kids on the set [many of the youths who appear in the movie are actually gang members] what they listen to,” he says. One song he ended up featuring was the thumping ”Suavecito,” by the L.A. all-girl Latin soul band 4 Corners. Says Benitez, ”It’s a lot like the songs I grew up with in the South Bronx in the ’70s you know, it’s really cool.”