The Mambo Kings
|The Mambo Kings|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Arne Glimcher|
|Screenplay by||Cynthia Cidre|
|Based on||The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love
by Oscar Hijuelos
|Music by||Robert Kraft|
|Edited by||Claire Simpson|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
|Box office||$6.7 million|
The Mambo Kings is a 1992 French–American drama film directed by Arne Glimcher, and based on Oscar Hijuelos's 1989 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. It stars Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas as Cesar and Nestor Castillo, brothers and aspiring musicians who flee from Cuba to America in the hopes of reviving their failed musical careers. The film marks the directing debut of Glimcher and features Banderas in his first English-language role.
Glimcher purchased the film rights to the novel in 1988, before hiring Cynthia Cidre to write the screenplay. Various studios rejected the film, and after an unsuccessful pre-production development at Universal Pictures, the project moved to Warner Bros., with Regency Enterprises and Le Studio Canal+ agreeing to co-finance the film. When Warner Bros. wanted Jeremy Irons and Ray Liotta in the lead roles, Glimcher had to convince executives to cast Assante and Banderas instead. Filming took place in Los Angeles, on sets recreating 1950s New York.
The Mambo Kings received mostly positive reviews from critics, but underperformed at the box office, grossing only $6,742,168 during its domestic theatrical release. For its original song "Beautiful Maria of My Soul", the film received Academy Award and Golden Globe Award nominations in Best Original Song categories.
In the early 1950s, Cuban brothers and musicians Cesar (Armand Assante) and Nestor Castillo (Antonio Banderas) flee from Havana, Cuba after getting into a violent dispute with the mobster owners of a club where they performed. Eventually ending up in New York City, the brothers work at menial jobs while attempting to revive their musical careers. At a nightclub where Cesar briefly crashes the act of mambo star Tito Puente, they make new friends and connections, as well as meeting cigarette girl Lanna Lake (Cathy Moriarty), who falls quickly into a love affair with Cesar.
Nestor, in the meantime, remains oblivious to other women while continually composing his ode to his lost Cuban love, Maria (Talisa Soto). He writes version after version of the same ballad, "Beautiful Maria of My Soul", until by chance one day he encounters Delores (Maruschka Detmers), a shy but attentive young woman who wishes to become a schoolteacher. When she becomes pregnant, they decide to get married.
Fate intervenes one night at a club, where the Castillo brothers have a part-time job. Nestor's love ballad captures the interest of one of the customers, who turns out to be the Cuban bandleader and American television star Desi Arnaz (played by his son, Desi Arnaz, Jr.). After a pleasant evening in Nestor and Delores's home, Arnaz generously invites the struggling Castillos to sing and act on an episode of his smash sitcom series, I Love Lucy.
Fame does not last, however. Nestor is not as ambitious as his brother and desires nothing more than to own his own small club. He is in love with Delores, but lacks the passion he felt for his beloved Maria back home. Cesar, meantime, suppresses his true feelings, that a woman like Delores would actually be perfect for him. Cesar eventually reveals to Nestor that Maria left him for a Cuban mobster in exchange for cancelling a contract hit against Nestor.
There are tragic consequences one snowy night when the Castillo brothers' car veers off the road and into a tree. Cesar, in the back seat of the vehicle, is barely hurt, but Nestor, having driven the car, is killed. The life of Cesar, shattered, is never the same. To honor his brother's memory, Cesar opens his own small club, which is well received. Delores pays him a visit and asks him to sing Nestor's song for her.
- Armand Assante as Cesar Castillo
- Antonio Banderas as Nestor Castillo
- Cathy Moriarty as Lanna Lake
- Maruschka Detmers as Delores Fuentes
- Desi Arnaz, Jr. as Desi Arnaz, Sr.
- Roscoe Lee Browne as Fernando Perez
- Celia Cruz as Evalina Montoya
- Vondie Curtis-Hall as Miguel Montoya
- Talisa Soto as Maria Rivera
- Tito Puente as Himself
- Thomas F. Duffy as Mulligan
- Frank Grillo as Machito
Arne Glimcher, an art dealer based in New York City and a fan of mambo music, learned that Oscar Hijuelos was writing a novel relating to the subject. In 1988, Hijuelos sent Glimcher a manuscript of his novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Glimcher purchased the film rights before the novel was published one year later. He hired Cuban-born screenwriter Cynthia Cidre to write the script. Cidre spent a year and a half working on the screenplay, and after 24 drafts, she had stripped the story down to cover only half of Hijuelos's 407-page book. When asked about the modification of his novel in the film adaptation, Hijuelos said, "My only concern was that the Cuban culture be treated with respect and the music be authentic and accurate to the period."
Various studios rejected the project, until Glimcher persuaded Tom Pollock, chairman of Universal Studios, to financially back the film on a low budget. Before production could begin however, Pollock insisted that footage from the television series I Love Lucy be a key part of the film. Following Lucille Ball's death in 1989, Glimcher was unable to secure the rights to use footage for the film. After Universal cancelled production of The Mambo Kings, the project moved to Warner Bros. Glimcher met with the studio's president Terry Semel, who introduced him to producer Arnon Milchan. Milchan agreed to co-finance the film through his production company Regency Enterprises and the French-based film studio Le Studio Canal+. The film was allocated a budget of $15.5 million.
Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas were Glimcher's ideal choices for the roles of Cesar and Nestor Castillo. Prior to The Mambo Kings, Assante had appeared in a number of films but had not yet broken out as a major star. Banderas, a Spanish actor, had moved to Los Angeles, California, hoping to make an international debut with his first English speaking role. Warner Bros., however, wanted to cast Jeremy Irons as Cesar and Ray Liotta as Nestor. Both actors had received critical acclaim for their performances in Reversal of Fortune and Goodfellas respectively, and the studio felt that they would appeal to a wider audience. Through a translator, Glimcher told Banderas to work on improving his English for one month before performing a screen test opposite Irons. The Spanish actor, lacking the ability to speak English, learned his lines phonetically. Despite Irons's excellent screen test, Glimcher thought he was wrong for the part and insisted on Assante; he thought the charm and seductiveness of Assante made him perfect for the role, and the studio eventually gave in.
Annabella Sciorra was originally cast as Nestor’s new love interest Delores, a role that eventually went to actress Maruschka Detmers when Sciorra was forced to pull out. Detmers was given the role just two weeks prior to filming. Glimcher cast Cathy Moriarty as Cesar's girlfriend Lanna Lake based on the actress's performance in Raging Bull. Desi Arnaz, Jr. was chosen to portray his father, Desi Arnaz, in a scene in which the Castillo brothers appear on an episode of I Love Lucy. In preparing for his role, Arnaz, Jr. dyed his hair black and wore an ID bracelet, ring and pin, all of which had belonged to his late father. "I wasn't trying to look exactly like him," he explained. "It was more about getting his essence and mannerisms." In an effort to re-create the mambo world of the 1950s, Glimcher cast musicians Tito Puente and Celia Cruz to appear in supporting roles.
Filming took place in Los Angeles, California, which doubled for scenes set in a 1950s-era New York City. The Palladium Ballroom, a former New York City concert hall, was recreated to serve as a centrepiece in the film. In describing the look of the film, production designer Stuart Wurtzel stated, "There are lots of photographs and some film from that period. ... There's a film called Mambo Madness from 1955 with some footage of Tito Puente and Desi Arnaz we looked at, and we got pictures from the Cuban Society in New York and from libraries. The Cuban community has been enormously supportive of the film, so we've also been privy to the private archives of many people." Ann Roth served as the film's costume designer, using vintage textiles to create the custom-made wardrobe. The I Love Lucy segment of the film was filmed at Ren-Mar Studios, the former site of Desilu Productions. The set of the Ricardos' living room was re-created, with film editors intercutting footage with Banderas, Assante and Arnaz, Jr. with an actual episode featuring Lucille Ball."
Music and soundtrack
Assante and Banderas did their own singing, and studied to master the instruments their characters use in the film. Assante practiced on drums, preparing for a scene in which his character plays a musical number with Tito Puente. Banderas worked to mimic the correct posture and finger placements for his character's trumpet performances, while the actual playing was performed by Arturo Sandoval.
Music supervisor Robert Kraft used existing music from the 1950s, all of which had to be re-recorded, as they were originally recorded in mono sound. The song "Beautiful Maria of My Soul" was written for the film by Glimcher, and composed by Kraft. The motion picture soundtrack, released by Elektra Records, features a number of original master recordings, re-recorded tracks and mambo music from Sandoval, Tito Puente and Celia Cruz.
Warner Bros. originally planned to release the film on December 25, 1991. It first premiered at the Miami International Film Festival on February 7, 1992 before being released theatrically on February 28, 1992. The Mambo Kings was released on VHS and laserdisc on September 2, 1992, and on DVD on August 17, 2005. The DVD includes an unrated version of the film that restores one deleted scene. Other features include a behind-the-scenes featurette and an audio commentary by Arne Glimcher.
Film critic Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote that the film "runs on pure emotion", and that it "celebrates the mysterious power of a music that can make you feel like dancing and bring you to your knees." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that the film's "story is as old as the movies, but The Mambo Kings is so filled with energy, passion and heedless vitality that it seems new, anyway."  Ebert and his colleague, Gene Siskel, gave the film a "Two Thumbs Up" rating on their syndicated television program, Siskel and Ebert and the Movies. Rita Kempley of The Washington Post praised the film's director, writing that "Glimcher shows an epicure's taste in his choice of both cast and crew. The look of "The Mambo Kings" is doubtless richer than the text, which is, however, strengthened by Glimcher's nostalgia for the teenage, eager America of the 1950s." Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly wrote, "The Mambo Kings is most fun when it practically dares you to swoon. It's a movie you don't have to believe to enjoy." Betty Goodwin of the Los Angeles Times praised the film's visual style: "The innocence of the pre-MTV '50s mambo scene is expressed through meticulously real details and honest styling."
Desson Howe of The Washington Post wrote a mixed review, writing that the film is "beautifully filmed and flashily edited", but that it "has nothing to offer." Vincent Canby of The New York Times, gave the film a negative review, writing, "There are times when the director doesn't even seem to know where to put the camera. Scenes unravel without dramatic point. No amount of breathless editing and fancy graphics can disguise the amateur nature of the enterprise." In The Philadelphia Inquirer, Roger E. Hernandez criticized the film for its portrayal of Cubans. Hernandez wrote, "The main problem here was the accents. The characters were supposed to be Cuban, but, with the exception of salsa star Celia Cruz, none sounded it." Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times criticized Glimcher's direction, writing in his review, "...when it comes to directing dramatic sequences, he is on his own and lacking in resources to make what drama there is come to a coherent or meaningful point."
Desi Arnaz, Jr. voiced his support of the film, stating that he and his sister Lucie Arnaz, "loved the story being told in this movie." Arnaz, Jr. said, "It is an amazing saga of people in search of the American dream. It is my father`s story. It is the story of many people who came to this country with hopes and dreams." Tito Puente praised the film prior to its theatrical release, stating, "I've seen the movie twice, and I loved it the second time. The first time I couldn't get into it. I was watching for too many details, I guess. But now I've seen it a second time, and I think it's great."
In its first week of release, The Mambo Kings grossed $319,793, having been released in 32 theatres in North America. The film earned an additional $299,418 in its second week. After three weeks of release, The Mambo Kings grossed $2,192,258 domestically. At the end of its theatrical run, the film had grossed $6,742,168, well below its $15.5 million budget.
The song "Beautiful Maria of My Soul" received a Best Original Song nomination at the 65th Academy Awards. It was also nominated at the 50th Golden Globe Awards for Best Original Song, and at the 35th Grammy Awards for "Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or for Television" category. The film received a second Grammy nomination for "Best Instrumental Composition Written for a Motion Picture or for Television" for the song "Mambo Caliente" which was composed by Arturo Sandoval.
|35th Grammy Awards||Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or for Television||Arne Glimcher and Robert Kraft for "Beautiful Maria of My Soul"||Nominated|
|Best Instrumental Composition Written for a Motion Picture or for Television||Arturo Sandoval for "Mambo Caliente"||Nominated|
|50th Golden Globe Awards||Best Original Song||Arne Glimcher and Robert Kraft for "Beautiful Maria of My Soul"||Nominated|
|65th Academy Awards||Best Original Song||Arne Glimcher and Robert Kraft for "Beautiful Maria of My Soul"||Nominated|
The Mambo Kings inspired a musical stage play of the same name in 2005. It was produced by Daryl Roth and Jordan Roth, with lyrics by Arne Glimcher and music by Carlos Franzetti. The Mambo Kings premiered at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco, California, opening on May 31, 2005. The stage version featured Esai Morales and Jaime Camil as Cesar and Nestor Castillo, with supporting performers including Christiane Noll, David Alan Grier, Cote de Pablo and Justina Machado. The production cancelled plans to open on Broadway theatre after a critically panned tryout engagement in San Francisco.
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