Can music be wild and racy and pulsating and carry an undertow of the sweetest melancholy at the same time? The 12 disparate ensembles — from Brazil, Cuba, Spain, and other countries — that make up the delectable performance film Calle 54 are herded under the catchall umbrella ”Latin jazz,” but that phrase implies a standardized genre, whereas the emotional range of what we hear is extraordinary, with a single song often fusing the electricity of salsa, the romance of bossa nova, the tangled impressionism of bebop, and the sheer tumult of ’70s fusion. Unlike, say, ”Buena Vista Social Club,” ”Calle 54” doesn’t pretend to offer more than a token portrait of its musicians (it’s less a movie than a stripped down primer of sound), but, collectively, the numbers add up to a triumph of ecstatic mood swinging.
The director, Fernando Trueba, films each of the performers against a different color coordinated backdrop inside Sony’s fabled Manhattan recording studio. (Hence the title; it means ”54th Street.”) Everyone will have their favorites, but I was particularly swept away by the mournful glissando elegance of pianist Eliane Elías, the sensual power of Michel Camilo, and the nearly eruptive polyrhythmic joy of the (now) late Tito Puente. ”Calle 54” could have used more background, but it lingers with a haunting echo, perhaps because it’s about music that surges with life yet also embraces, in the beauty of its nostalgia, the sadness of death.