J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

MFF ’17: Sex. Maracas & Chihuahuas

He was one of the first to record Frank Sinatra, married Charo, and from time to time had dinner with Al Capone. Xavier Cugat led a ridiculously full life, but he also helped introduce Cuban rhythms to America, paving the way for Afro-Cuban jazz. The music of the “Rumba King” was hipper than you thought according to Chucho Valdés, one the many admirers who pays tribute to Cugat in Diego Mas Trelles’s Sex, Maracas & Chihuahuas (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Miami Film Festival.

Cugat’s life was a Horatio Alger story that took a very Hollywood turn. His family emigrated from Catalonia first to Cuba when he was five-year-old and then again to America ten-years later. Eventually, Cugat would marry and divorce five times, plus he would be romantically linked to dozens of band singers and Hollywood starlets. He started out accompanying silent films, but his band became the featured attraction in many classic Hollywood musicals. Yet, his music was totally hip and legit. In fact, composers and songwriters like Cole Porter and Ernesto Lecuona wrote tunes expressly with his band in mind.

SM&C is a dishy doc, but it is almost always Cugat doing the dishing. Late in life, he returned to his native Catalonia, but he was never shy when prompted to reminisce about his golden years, especially when it was an attractive reporter asking. The archival footage always catches Cugat in a playful spirit, which Mas Trelles matches with some sly editing and graphics.

Minute-for-minute, cell-for-cell, SM&C might just be the most rollickingly entertaining documentary of the last five years. You have the glamour of Cugat’s vocalist-lovers (such as Lina Romay) and his wives, most notably including Abbe Lane. Then there is the intrigue that comes from playing the clubs and casinos owned by the likes of Bugsy Siegel and Scarface Al. There are even dogs, thanks to Cugat’s investment in a Chihuahua breeding concern. Plus, we get to hear Valdés play a little Cugat with his combo.

Man, what a life. SM&C is just overflowing with anecdotes and marriages, but we get the feeling Mas Trelles is only scratching the surface. Nevertheless, he keeps it snappy and consistently refocuses our attention on Cugat’s music, which is impressively dexterous of him. Very highly recommended for anyone who appreciates Latin music or old school Hollywood, Sex, Maracas & Chihuahuas screens this Friday (3/10), as part of the Miami Film Festival.

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