J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, March 12, 2018

SXSW ’18: Ruben Blades is Not My Name

It is tough to get discovered working in a record label’s mailroom, but it sure helps if producer-recording artist Larry Harlow has the office next door. Ruben Blades also had some catchy songs he worked on during his lunch breaks—as well as a law degree from Harvard. For some, Blades was the last great Fania superstar, who helped the Salsa company breakout internationally with his politicized lyrics. To others, he is a recognizable actor from Hollywood films like The Two Jakes and Mo’ Better Blues. Supposedly winding down his musical career with a farewell tour, Blades welcomed filmmaker Abner Benaim’s camera to help explicitly define his legacy in Ruben Blades is Not My Name (trailer here), which premiered at this year’s SXSW.

It is easy to see why questions of legacy are top of mind, given how many of the Fania All-Stars are no longer with us (including Ray Barretto, Celia Cruz, Héctor Lavoie, and Pete “El Conde” Rodríguez). On the other, many of the surviving Fania artists are conspicuously missing (particularly those involved in litigation), but at least the great Larry Harlow is present and accounted for. Regardless, the sequences directly pertaining to Fania are definitely the doc’s strongest, which is fortunate, because they are also what Blades fans probably most want to see. Alas, those hoping for the definitive “making of” history of Color of Night with Bruce Willis and Jane March will have to look elsewhere.

Conversely, the film is at its weakest when celebrating Blades’ political activism, possibly because his generally leftist worldview so closely aligns with that of Benaim’s. However, we have to give Blades, the one-time Panamanian presidential candidate, credit for expressing some criticism of the Chavez/Maduro regime, even though he is nowhere near as vociferous as he was speaking out against Reagan’s anti-communist policies in the 1980s. Nevertheless, he was largely on the sidelines when the Chavists and their allies used ostensibly democratic constituent assemblies to roll back democracy throughout Latin America—a fact a different, less radicalized filmmaker might have pressed him on.

In any event, Blades is clearly running this show, which will probably be fine with his fans. To his credit, he faces up to the illegitimate son he recognized relatively recently in 2015—and that is obviously a hard topic for Blades to discuss so openly. Altogether, it is decent portrait of an internationally influential artist. Recommended for fans of Blades and Fania, Ruben Blades is Not My Name screens again this Tuesday (3/13) and Wednesday (3/14), as part of the 2018 SXSW.

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