Astor Piazzolla in Portrait (2005)

by | May 21, 2005 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Astor Piazzolla in Portrait (2005)

Studio: BBC/Opus Arte (Distr. by Naxos)
Video: 4:3 & 16:9 color & B&W, all regions
Audio: Dolby Digital stereo
Extras: “Piazzolla: The Man and His Music” – 54 min. of interviews with
his son, widow, Richard Alliano and other performers; Bonus track of
rehearsal of Milonga del Angel
Length: 213 minutes
Rating: *****

I’ve wondered for years why a feature film hasn’t been done on the life
of Piazzolla; this seems to be the best we have for now and it’s very
good. (I also continue to wonder why one still hasn’t been done on the
life of Django Reinhardt.) The lengthy timing is due to there being two
separate films here: Tango Maestro is a documentary written, filmed and
narrated by Mike Dibb, 106 minutes length. Then Tango Nuevo is a record
of Piazzolla’s last recorded studio performance, playing six of his
complete classics with his final quintet. The film by Dibbs includes
selections from 30 years of filmed performances by Piazzolla’s groups.
It explores the turbulent and complex life of the great Argentine
composer/performer. He speaks directly about some of the highlights in
his life. One was his concentration on a more modern and unique style
of tango, which resulted from his one session with Nadia Boulanger in
Paris. She wasn’t impressed by the copycat music he was writing which
was redolent of Ravel, Stravinsky and Bartok, and told him to go back
to the tango milieu with which he was familiar and make his mark in
that style.

So Piazzolla, who had played bandoneon in Carlos Gardel’s band as a
teenager, returned to his tango heritage and formed his band New Tango,
which brought new sounds of contemporary jazz, classical and rock,
flamenco and other influences into the tradition-bound and sentimental
tango form. His music still retained the gutsy even violent basic
nature of the original tango of the Buenos Aires bordellos, with its
dance movements imitating knife fights and sex. But it was so much more
complex that it became listening music more than dance accompaniment –
something like what happened to big bands like Ellington. His music is
not used by most tango instructors or dancers – the rhythms are much
too weird. Piazzolla encountered tremendous opposition in his own
country, where many thought he had ruined their tango culture. But one
of the interviews is with the leader of a Paris dance company who
creates ballets using Piazzolla’s music.

Piazzolla’s colorful private life is investigated, with interviews with
past lovers and a couple of his children who had on and off
relationships with him after he moved out of the New York apartment
where they lived with their mother. They had moved there to escape the
dictatorship in Argentina, but his son (who performed with Piazzolla in
one of the quintets) was shocked that his father later was friendly
with and performed for the regime.

Contributions to the documentary come from such admirers of his music
as Yo-Yo Ma, Daniel Barenboim, Gary Burton and the Kronos Quartet.
There are clips from two feature films for which Piazzolla wrote the
music. (I would love to see The Exile of Gardel, but the web DVD
listings show it as out of print.) The many Argentine and other
performers who worked with him also fill in aspects of Piazzolla’s life
and nature. One of his closest friends was the fine French jazz
accordionist Richard Galliano, who shared Piazzolla’s Italian heritage.
The musical performances are exciting, and show the dedication and
seriousness of Piazzolla when onstage. (I was fortunate to see him
perform a couple years before he died.) His music has started a
worldwide tango craze – actually the second tango craze since the one
in the 30s. There are now tango groupies everywhere and elements of
tango are creeping into every sort of composition – as witness the
Kronos Quartet’s appearance in this documentary. Even on a CD just
received here for review – works for pipe organ by Guy Bouvet combining
tango with ancient ecclesiastical modes!

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