Within hours of his arrival in New York City with his brother Nestor, Cesar Castillo is out on the town.
The Big Apple's newest Cuban emigre hits a club where he makes passes at a half-dozen women, leaps onto the bandstand to join headliner Tito Puente in an exhausting percussion duel, barely misses being shot, and passes the night rocking and rolling with a big, blonde cigarette girl (Cathy Moriarty).
In a moment of passion, Cesar cries out, "I love this country!"
Cesar and Nestor's struggle to leave their mark on America is the underlying theme of The Mambo Kings, producer Arne Glimcher's satisfying directing debut. But the main attraction is its irresistible blend of music, romance, and more undiluted testosterone than can be found in the entire Die Hard series.
The brothers are opposite sides of the same coin. Cesar is impetuous, combative and cocky. ("He thinks he's the last Coca-Cola in the desert," observes one nonetheless admiring female.) Nestor is shy and quiet, devoting his time to a dog-eared self-help book and to writing love songs to the girl he left behind in Havana.
The Mambo Kings is an old-fashioned film in the best sense of the phrase. It's not only set in the 1950s, it feels as if it were made in the '50s, from its handling of the musical numbers to the gimmicky visual tricks Glimcher lifts from films of the period.
But even when The Mambo Kings pours on the corniness – when characters are using phrases like "I'm tickled pink" or "You're just the cat's meow" – it's less an affront than a comfort.
Cynthia Cidre's screenplay, based on Oscar Hijuelos' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, emphasizes romantic melodrama over the book's deeper themes of assimilation and cultural identity. At the heart of the narrative, for example, is an unrequited love triangle.
Nestor meets and marries Dolores (Maruschka Detmers), although his heart is still with his lost love in Cuba. Meanwhile Dolores and Cesar share an undeniable sexual attraction.
Glimcher, whose producing credits include Gorillas in the Mist and The Good Mother, and Cidre are at their best in the opening episodes, where they let us share the amazement and high expectations of two arrivals exploring their new country. In its latter stages, Mambo Kings loses some of its narrative drive as Nestor struggles to break free of his big brother's domineering influence.
But there's no denying that the film is vastly enjoyable and spectacularly musical.
Other films in the series “Hollywood's Music”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- April 1: 8 Mile (2002) Rated R
- April 8: Mo' Better Blues (1990) Rated R
- April 15: Cadillac Records (2008) Rated R
- April 22: Coal Miner's Daughter (1980) Rated PG
- April 29: The Mambo Kings (1992) Rated R
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- April 6: Leadbelly (1976) Rated PG
- April 13: A Great Day In Harlem (1994) Not Rated
- April 20: American Graffiti (1973) Rated PG
- April 27: Every Little Step (2008) Rated PG-13
Admission to these films is free.
The series complements the six-week program America’s Music: A Film History of Our Popular Music from Blues to Bluegrass to Broadway.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.