is tempting to dub Felipe Pirela the Venezuelan Jerry Lee Lewis, because of his
marriage to thirteen-year-old Mariela Montiel. Yet somehow he got off easy in
the national media, at least initially. It is pretty clear why. In terms of
record sales, he was the Venezuelan Elvis and the effect of his romantic
boleros could lead some to call him the Venezuelan Sinatra. However, their
ill-advised union leads to bad karma over time in Diego Rísquez’s bio-pic, El Malquerido (trailer here), which screens as
the opening night film of the 2016 Venezuelan Film Festival in New York.
mounting his zillionth comeback, Pirela will tell his story on a Puerto Rican
talk show, thereby supplying Rísquez’s flashback framing device. By this time, Pirela
had declared Venezuela off-limits, for reasons we will soon understand. His
early years follow a familiar pattern. Little Felipe croons for his adoring
mother, who gets him a spot on a talent discovery radio show through s friend
of a friend. Of course, he is a hit, generating increasingly professional gigs,
until he signs with Billo Frómeta’s orchestra as a young man. His popularity
explodes during his tenure with old beloved Billo, like Frank Sinatra’s stint
with the Tommy Dorsey band. Inevitably, he goes solo, but that looks like a
mistake in retrospect.
the short term, Pirela makes a mountain of money. In the long term, he is
doomed to sabotage himself. Montiel’s scoldy mother will also do her best to
help. Frankly, there is something comforting about Pirela’s story, because it
reassures us Latin American superstars are just as likely to fatally succumb to
sex and drugs as the American and British rockstars we are more familiar with.
yes, we know exactly where El Malquerido is
headed, but the little, culturally specific details make it a rewarding ride
anyway. Samantha Castillo does not have a lot of screen time, but she still
manages to steal the picture as the legendary La Lupe, who sings with Pirela
and offers him some advice he should have taken more seriously.
Chino Miranda is surprisingly sullen as Pirela, but it usually fits the
dramatic context of his life. Natalia Roman gives the film an energy lift as
Paquita, the Puerto Rican lover he should have been more faithful to (in jazz
terms, she was the Cicely Tyson to his Miles Davis). However, it is hard to fathom
how Greisy Mena’s Montiel could inspire such scandal given her mousy screen presence.
Pirela could sing a bolero and Billo could lead
a band, so there is no shortage of distinctive music throughout the film.
Considering how popular he clearly was, it is surprising he does not have more
crossover recognition today, like Celia Cruz and La Lupe herself, but the part
where he dies prematurely at thirty-one obviously did not help. Like a good
bandleader, Rísquez keeps the drama snappy and showcases plenty of well-chosen tunes.
Recommended for bolero fans, El
Malquerido screens this Wednesday (9/14), at the Village East, as the
opener of this year’s VEFFNY.
Labels: Felipe Pirela, La Lupe, VEFFNY '16, Venezuelan Cinema