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Cuban Maestro: Sizzles at SF Film Fest
by Roger Rose
For those lucky enough to squeeze into the San Francisco premiere of Cachao: Uno Mas at the SF International Film Festival, they found themselves immersed in the scintillating rhythms of the legendary Cuban musical maestro Israel ‘Cachao’ Lopez, one of the architects of modern Cuban music. Concert footage and archival photos are artfully interspersed to knit a chronology of his life, and his musical innovations are illustrated in interviews with Cachao himself, his fellow musicians, and his family and friends.
Produced by the DOC Film Institute of SF State, the bio-doc began as a concert film of Cachao’s 2005 performance (with Andy Garcia and The Cineson All-Stars) at Bimbo’s 365 Club in North Beach. The legendary bassist arrived in The City to receive the first Marcus Award for Lifetime Achievement. This dynamic film combined the efforts of three eminent co-producers: Hollywood heart-throb Andy Garcia, Telluride founder Tom Luddy, and SF State éminence grise Stephen Ujlaki.
The great Cuban bassist might have wound up only a footnote to musical history, were it not for the tireless efforts of Cuban-born actor/musician Garcia, whose deep friendship and patronage helped preserve Chacao’s musical legacy. Garcia first met Cachao when he was in San Francisco (during preparations for Godfather III) when Tom Luddy brought him to a Davies Hall performance of Cachao’s famous danzones – and a fateful backstage meeting.
Luddy, himself a Cuban music aficionado, was constantly talking about Cachao and ‘pushing his tapes’ on Ujlaki, who says, “I’d never heard of him at the time, but I quickly came to love his music.”
So the collaboration began years later, on the occasion of the $25,000 Marcus award, and moved to the vision of a documentary that weaves the compelling story of the Cachao/Garcia bond that Garcia seals with the quote, “Cachao is my musical and spiritual father.”
Doc Film Institute Director Stephen Ujlaki spotted the film’s possibilities on an auspicious weekend in 2005, when San Francisco was the scene of a blending of Cuban music, art and culture. “We’re a doc film institute and we’re hosting a legendary musician. I wanted to memorialize Cachao with the very best music, sound and cinematography – and document it.”
Ujlaki immediately asked DFI board member Les Blank to film the concert. Sensing he might not give the concert its full justice, Blank referred Ujlaki to Dikayl Rimmasch, whose previous film work included music, dance and some of the best digital work around. Says Ujlaki, “At Les’ recommendation, I met with Dikayl Rimmasch and loved his work. When I hired him we agreed that we wanted ‘a film look.’ Light it for film, basically.”
As director and cinematographer, Rimmasch designed a complete lighting scheme using Bimbo’s to re-create New York’s underground club life. Rimmasch explains that his lighting direction grew from a series of vintage photographs shot in New York in the 40s and 50s from underground night clubs with mostly backlit singular light sources. “The film was shot primarily using the Panasonic SDX900 cameras with an eventual upconvert to hi-def. The concert venue was completely re-lit, including battery-powered lights placed on every table, and vintage Mole Richardson 750 Fresnells were suspended over the dance floor.”
For calibrating the cameras, Rimmasch used several Degas floor-lit ballet paintings as inspiration: “A spotlight for Cachao was brought in specifically for the camera angle tracking behind the band. The black pedestal was pushed to decrease the ‘video’ or contrasty edge. The RGB in the highlights was reduced to decrease contrast; especially the blues, which helped warm the separation. Blue tints were applied in color correction to the lower blacks to enhance atmosphere and make the room feel cooler and electric. Then, the blacks were crushed and their overall levels were raised.”
Rimmasch used a hazer, which helped considerably to even out the contrast and give the space a sense of connectedness. “In contrast, we color-corrected the Cigar Bar interview to feel warm, with special attention to the tonality and naturalism of color. HMIs were used to strengthen the light which had been particularly overcast on that day.”
Tom Luddy describes the shoot: “We brought in professional film gaffers to light the stage at Bimbo’s to look its best. We were also focused on having terrific sound. We had a total of eight cameras, including dollies, and put one camera in the back for an overall view of the stage. We had a bunch of roving cameras, and we had Les Blank shooting from the audience.”
Luddy credits the quality sound to Ken Polk, who not only mixes sound for feature films but is an experienced record producer himself. “He’s a real expert on this kind of music and knows how best to re-record it.”
Steven Ujlaki sought to bring the best sound, music and story to honor Cachao’s lifetime contributions. He admitted with sadness in his voice, “My major disappointment is that Cachao never got to see the film.”
Israel ‘Cachao’ Lopez died at the age of 89 only a few weeks before the San Francisco premiere of Cachao: Uno Mas. This heartfelt tribute serves to document and celebrate the life and work of one of Cuba’s most beloved musical legends.
Roger Rose is a longtime SF writer with an interest in fine art, dance, theatre, and film. He serves as a Trustee on several non-profit boards, and is an active and effective fundraiser.
Roger Rose 415.999.1400
Posted on Jun 03, 2008 - 01:59 PM