Artful Conversation in ‘The Return of Rubén Blades’

Like the man himself, The Return of Rubén Blades is proof that art is important, but only a part of living a rich, thoughtful life.

At its worst, the music documentary is a hasty cash-in. By pandering to hot artists with backstage footage and flashy live performance, the potential for insight into the creative process is sidelined for a flattering, superficial glance. At its best, however, the artform can shift perception and introduce an artist to a wider international audience. That is precisely what filmmaker Robert Mugge set out to do with The Return of Rubén Blades, and thanks to the compelling nature of his muse, this 1985 effort succeeds.

Blades, a Panamanian salsero who struck it big in the ’70s, was at a transitional point in his career. Buscando América (1984), his first release without bandleader Willie Colón, was a startling departure from salsa’s typically horn-heavy arrangements. Through the integration of doo-wop, spoken word, and arena rock with socially conscious songwriting, the album’s acclaim elevated Blades from latino star to global breakout. This success bled into a flood of alternative outlets, among which included the publishing of political essays, a law degree at Harvard University, and a starring role in the film Crossover Dreams (1985). By any and all measures, Blades had proven himself a modern Renaissance Man — a status that Mugge highlights through shifting topics and the singer’s own astute views.

Blades is undoubtedly well versed in the art of conversation. He’s rarely without a topic of exploration, and his interviews throughout the documentary establish this with frank, comforting casualness. “We could live in a ghetto situation, but we didn’t have to life in a ghetto situation of our minds,” he explains, discussing salsa music and the fight against latino stereotypes in Hollywood. They’re dense notions to be tossed out, but the backdrop of a park in Panama establishes the singer’s greatest tool: plainspoken charm. He’s a man with plenty to say about modern society, and like the great poets and musicians before him, he doesn’t pander to his audience or talk down to them in complex rhetoric. Instead, discussions of Blades’ hometown are held right alongside its inhabitants — an environment he maneuvers with admiration, nostalgia, and love.

Away from Panama, the bulk of the narrative takes place in Blades’ adopted home, New York City. It is here, amidst the monochromatic calm of the singer’s apartment, that his political ideals and spirited songwriting become one. He discusses the inspiration behind his most popular works, from the intervention anthem “Tiburon” (“Shark”) to the swaying satire of “Buscando América” (“Looking for America”) with eagerness and an accompanying English translation. Mugge uses a slow zoom approach, emphasizing the fact that Blades is offering insight into his craft; and the aesthetic choice works likes a charm.

Anecdotes about “Pedro Navaja” (“Peter Knife”) being inspired by “Mack the Knife”, or the breakup that led to the Linda Ronstadt duet “Silencios” (“Silences”) serve as highlights for both casual music fans and salsa fans as a result. The latter tune is especially enjoyable for the singer to dish on, as it allows him to discuss salsa’s future and poke fun at his own difficulty making lightweight songs. “That’s lighter?” he quips, imitating a friend’s reaction.

But this commitment to content is what makes Blades’ work so special. A live performance, filmed at New York’s S.O.B.’s (Sounds of Brazil) Club, shows his audience to be more interested in the message than they are the rumbling melodies. A definite rarity for the genre, the crowd taking Blades in does so with intent listening and little else — a reception typically reserved for a poetry reading. Mugge also staggers each of these song to align with their backstory, letting them breath in between the interviews and tranquil dialogue. In doing so, the filmmaker constructs the rare musical doc that uses music as a tool instead of the central focus; a trait that captures his large narrative canvas. In fact, the varied tone is covered so well that when Blades does take the stage, his presence as a singer simply become an extension of his extracurricular activities.

In the last three decades, this extracurricular schedule has only increased. Blades became a respected actor in Hollywood (currently with Hands of Stone), a political force in Panama, and a continued icon in the music industry with eight Grammys. And yet, few documentaries have been made in his honor (Abner Benaim is currently shooting Rubén Blades Is Not My Name), leaving Mugge’s film, with its exuberance and leisurely charm, a definitive study. While the political talk will prove off-putting to some, the film’s inspired words and actions are universal. Like the man himself, The Return of Rubén Blades is proof that while art is important, its only part of living a rich, thoughtful life.

There are no extras with this DVD.

RATING 7 / 10