Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun

It'll take a will stronger than mine to avoid summarizing Cafe de Los Maestros as a Buena Vista Social Club featuring Argentine tango in place of 20th century Cuban music. Though the thematic and structural similarities are so obvious it seems impossible that they're accidental, in a meandering, essentially plotless documentary film about breathtakingly superlative musicians does it really matter where line is between homage and rip-off? Put another way, if this is (and it is) such a lovely way to witness so many legendary musicians gathering together to share their passion and their craft, why re-invent that wheel?

So, like its predecessor, Cafe de los Maestros peeks in while legendary musicians, mostly from the 30s and 40s, gather first to rehearse together then to perform together in a prestigious concert hall. (In this film it's the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires.) First and foremost we get to witness truly astonishing performances, each somehow more impressive than the last as they begin playing together and building on each others' skills. The film also pauses periodically to follow now one, now another of these, shall we say, unassuming-looking elder gentlemen (and two absolutely magnificent women) as they traverse their current, mostly quotidian lives. One goes to a favorite pub to watch a soccer match with another long-time musician friend, another spends most of his days at the horse races, a third visits a prehistoric-looking repair shop to work on his bandoneon. As they walk they reminisce about the days when they were tango rock stars, and their place in the history of tango music. Charmingly, almost all of them talk more about their mentors or other musicians they admire than they do about themselves. This does not appear to be humility per se–none seems uncertain of his or her own greatness–but rather an overwhelming devotion to the beauty of what they've devoted their lives to creating, and their respect for others who have done the same.

Director Miguel Kohan interweaves more general scenes from present-day Argentina as well as disappointingly scant archival footage into these vignettes, but the meat of the film is the performances. The editing is at times a bit clunky, and after a while I decided that there was probably no particular logic to why we were witnessing one story before or after any other, but ultimately any flaws are all but consumed by the quality of the music. I'll concede that SIFF crowds are more prone to effusion than your average Pacific Northwestern filmgoing audience, but it's still a testament to the power of the performances that the audience erupted in almost involuntary applause after a particularly moving number.

I should also confess, in case there are others like me, that I decided to see this movie because when I read "tango" I immediately thought of the dance, and was vaguely disappointed midway through when I realized that there would be almost no dancing in the movie. I can't help but wish there'd been a bit more, or if not that then possibly a bit less, since the footage of civilians in dance halls wasn't all that inspiring. But it's hard to quibble too much when the music itself is just so damn good. Plus I can say I know now almost 100% more about Argentine Tango than I did a few days ago.