While "Calle 54" was mostly called a documentary upon its theatrical release last year, I'd easy find it better described as a "concert film". Director Fernando Trueba's film does a wonderful job at pulling together some of Latin Jazz's current greats (Tito Puente, Chucho Valdes, Jerry Gonzalez, Cachao, Paquito D'Rivera, Eliane Elias and many more) to play in a studio, but we really never find out that much about any of them, aside from some slight interviews and introductions.
Most compared the film to "Buena Vista Social Club", but they really couldn't be more different. "Buena Vista" presented a stronger mix of information about the music and the culture. "Vista" seemed more organic and free-flowing, while "Calle 54" locks into the rhythm of performance, quick intro, performance, quick intro.
Yet, the performances are terrific and the music is infectious. The performers really get into their efforts and occasionally seem to lose themselves in the moment while playing. The performances are nicely captured and generally well-edited, as well. "Calle 54" could have been considerably more than a concert film, but as a concert film, it does boast superb performances from some of the genre's greats.
While one might not learn a great deal from "Calle 54", Miramax has done a terrific job with the DVD edition, which includes a nearly hour-long documentary and commentary.
VIDEO: "Calle 54" is presented by Miramax in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. I'm not sure, but it looks as if the scenes between the performances were shot in a different film stock, as they can occasionally look a bit grainy in comparison to the smoother, richer look of the performance footage. Sharpness and detail is generally good throughout, as the picture looked most well-defined and crisp during the performances.
Some other flaws unfortunately popped up. Although their appearance was generally brief, some print flaws - a scratch, some dirt and the occasional speck, popped up. A few traces of slight pixelation and edge enhancement also popped up. Colors look considerably cool and subdued during the introduction sequences, but the performance sequences are dominated by a red backdrop. The reds in these sequences seem a bit heavy, but this wasn't a major complaint.
SOUND: "Calle 54" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish, with English subtitles (during the introduction sequences, these are presented - oddly, there's no subtitles during the performances). As there's little talking and lots of performing, there's really not much in the way of dialogue to read. The 5.1 soundtrack really folds up during the in-between segments where the performers are introduced and only has dialogue, not even any ambience. The 5.1 track gets a better chance to shine during the musical sequences though and, for the most part, it does. Surrounds really aren't that big a part of the equation, but the music does come with exquisite clarity through the front speakers.
MENUS:: Very basic, rather weakly designed menus.
Commentary: This is a commentary from Latin Jazz historian and co-producer Nat Chediak, who offers a scene-specific commentary, as he goes into the history of the performer currently on-screen. An interesting track, and it's nice to have the accompanying information available to learn more about the history of the performer and general information about them. This commentary is available in both English and Spanish.
Calle 54: Side B: This is an hour-long documentary that provides further interviews with many of the stars involved, who discuss their history playing music and their thoughts about the current state and previous history of the "Latin Jazz" genre. The documentary also gives us a good idea of how Latin Jazz evolved from other musical genres and elements, as well as the music's cultural background. Essentially, it answers the questions that I had about the music after watchng the movie. The presentation is offered in 1.85:1 widescreen, with Spanish 2.0 audio(English subtitles).
Also: Trailer (full-frame), musician bios.
Final Thoughts: "Calle 54" is an excellent concert film with superb performances, but I would have liked to learn more about the music and its history. Thankfully, Miramax's DVD provides that information via the commentary and excellent documentary. It's a little expensive at $32.99 retail, but those who are already fans of the film or the music should take a look. Those who have a basic interest might want to take a look as a rental first, or check out the soundtrack.
The Film ***
Video 86/B = (344/400 possible points)
Audio: 88/B = (352/400 possible points)
Extras: 84/B = (252/300 possible points)
Menus: 70/C- = (140/200 possible points)
Value: 82/B = (246/300 possible points)
FILM GRADE: ***
DVD GRADE: B