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Tuesday, 18 October 2016

I made millions of people happy with my music ~ Xavier Cugat

This is a Festival preview of Sex, Maracas & Chihuahuas (2016)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

1 October

This is a Festival preview of Sex, Maracas & Chihuahuas
Sexo, maracas y chihuahuas) (2016) (for Cambridge Film Festival 2016)

For the generations that grew up knowing him, perhaps band-leader, actor, caricaturist and cartoonist¹ Xavier Cugat seemed as though he had always been there - here, there and everywhere ? For, as this film readily shows us, Cugat was a household name, leading his Latin orchestra – although he had come, via Cuba, to make his fortune in the States, he and his background were actually Catalan By birth - please see below) – and seen, both in films and on television, with all the glamorous stars, his violin, and, often enough, a trademark Chihuahua under his left arm, as he conducted with the other.

Right at the opening, a curated set of introductions, heard just after the logos of production partners, funders, and distributors, and over psychedelic titles, straightaway establishes for audiences now that his was a name once conjured with : the film goes on to demonstrate how and why Cugat had so many stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame², and is credited with finding and making many names that have perhaps outlived his own in the memory of intervening decades.

Though, in fact, it is best left to Cugat himself in the film to tell us who most of these stars were, he is heard to tell us, amongst other things, that this is how it happened :

Stars are not made. I was lucky enough to have a keen eye...
and be able to recognise talent. I was very lucky.

Perhaps, though, denying any more than the luck of having an ability (and also having the opportunity) cuts both ways – just as Dvořák wanted to do, by asserting the opposite : fine, Dvořák said, to think that discovering themes was what mattered, but he wanted to claim that knowing how to use and develop them was far more important (e.g. employing, or being inspired by, traditional music in his 'American' string quartet, or the so-called New World Symphony (No. 9 in E Minor, ‘From the New World’, Op. 95)). In Cugat’s case, would saying that he had made others as important as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis stars imply that he, too, had been made a star… ? If so, effectively the same argument as Dvořák’s : Talent matters, and will out.

Which is fine, since the truth is that, although just listing here what Xavier Cugat could - and did - do might not make relatively little impression on us¹, Sex, Maracas & Chihuahuas aptly demonstrates that Cugat was not merely 'taken into' the world of Hollywood, but importantly helped create it. In, for example, those expensively elaborate cinematic productions that are often described as being from its ‘Golden Days’ – as composer, arranger, film-star, and musician / band-leader alone, he was not part of Hollywood, but was Hollywood embodied.

Referring to Xavier Cugat's latter years back in Catalonia - Cugat had been born in Girona, in Catalunya (‘Catalonia’ in Catalan), and went to live in Barcelona - historian and scriptwriter Román Gubern suggests that Cugat's Catalan spirit was a last-minute opportunistic claim.

So the film is neither so reverential that the sense of a real person, with human weakness, is absent, nor is it uncovering every stone so that the overriding impression is not of truthfulness, but of disrespect. (However, it must be said that, although Gubern, as an authority in his field, is one of the film's main commentators, here (and below) he does not seem very kind to Cugat's memory, or gracious about his credentials, as if not thoroughly appreciating his many achievements - please see below.) In this, it is in the best of documentary style, as typified – for the world of (popular) music – by Jeanie Finlay’s (@JeanieFinlay’s) Orion : The Man Who Would Be King (@OrionMovie), telling us a story (a history, in both cases) with most of which we may be unfamiliar, but of men who were sought after in their time (if in such different ways as Jimmy Ellis and he… ?).

Yet maybe not in wholly different ways, as we progress, and delve back with director Diego Mas Trelles from where Cugat got to in life to how he got there – even though Jimmy Ellis, to experience what he wanted and have fame, clearly both was and felt trapped by being obliged to be a performer just known as Orion (and only permitted to be a successful singer when wearing one of Orion’s many mysterious masks [Mark Kermode's review, for The Observer, contains some copyright imagery). In due time, we learn both how Cugat came to the States, and of his skill in fabricating an image of himself – for Cugat, unlike Ellis, seems to have been quite happy in deliberately trading on his time in Cuba and being taken for Latin American : all consistent with being in the States to be a success and, not unrelatedly, his view that Hollywood itself in the 1920s was such an evocation and incarnation of fantasy (but one which, in his estimation as he looks back, had started to diminish).

In the US he was considered a latino and lived like one. He earned a living as a latino.

Román Gubern

That said, as has been commented above, Gubern may effectively be being harsh on Cugat here, in saying this in relation to Cugat's returning to Catalonia towards the end of his life, since Cugat says that the family moved from Girona when he was three. (Although Gubern says that Cugat deserves his admiration for how he gained his career, he is also hardly uncritical elsewhere.) Cugat's formative years, in terms of an education in music and imbibing its colours and contours, were thus actually spent in Cuba.

Chucho Valdés

I think that those guys took Cuban music to another level. Cugat paved the way. Later, this helped others to follow suit. But, without him, it might have taken a lot longer.

Chucho Valdés (musician)

By the time that one of the film's speakers makes the comment that Cugat liked taking credit for things, we have already heard more than a little bit of boasting from him⁴, including his claim to have foreshadowed the first 'talkie', which is not now accepted to have been The Jazz Singer (1927), 'long before' - with Cugat and his Gigolos⁵. However, it seems that Cugat did, for example, really first see the talent of Margarita Cansino - even if Harry Cohn, studio head at Columbia Pictures, and not he, probably (according to such sources as IMDb (@IMDb)) gave her the famous name that we know her by (but who she was would be telling !)... Even so, Cugat is always one to behave graciously (and to ensure doing so), and so he acknowledges I've been very lucky, my friends wrote great tunes. I didn't compose a lot.

At the same time as being open, for example, that Cugat married very young women and remained happy with their success, but only as long as his billing at least equalled theirs, the overriding feeling of the film – and how it presents facts behind Cugat’s era and his career – is to embrace all of this on the level of fantasy and fun³, as the title Sex, Maracas & Chihuahuas implies, of course :

Carmen Miranda

The film lavishly gives us animated versions of Cugat’s cartoons, which mingle with the lights of Las Vegas, the bright colours and flamboyance of his bands’ costumes (using which, he co-creates the liveliness of the rumba, the seductiveness of the beguine), and the legendary and excessively fruit-laden headdresses of the tropical oasis that was Carmen Miranda – we really do see the strength behind Cugat’s claim that Hollywood then was more of a living fantasy !

* * * * *

There are two scheduled screenings of Sexo, maracas y chihuahuas (2015) [the link is to the #CamFF web-page for the film] during Camera Catalonia :

* Monday 24 October at 10.15 p.m.

* Tuesday 25 October at 10.30 a.m.


¹ Amongst other achievements such as composing, directing films, and running business ventures – or lending his name or self-stylized image to them.

² As laid out on the blocks of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street :

³ Cugat even seems to have embraced a fantasy life in reality, by carefully ensuring that each one of his five wives - Rita Montaner, Carmen Castillo, Lorraine Allen, Abbe Lane, and Charo (Baeza) - had her own house (according to ??), but thereby seeming to have endangered the financial basis of his retirement.

⁴ Yet, it is charmingly done, and Cugat is a fine raconteur, so we enjoy hearing him tell us about Valentino, Clark Gable, Cole Porter, and so on...

⁵ A short, he tells us, for Warner when he was 28 : The sound wasn't recorded with the film. It was on a record that was synchronised with the film. That said, Cugat was born in 1900, also according to IMDb (@IMDb)).

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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