From its breathtaking opening shot in a Havana nightclub, where frenzied dancing muffles the backstage cries of a woman watching a man's throat cut, The Mambo Kings runs on pure emotion. First-time director Arne Glimcher surely does a service to Oscar Hijuelos's Pulitzer Prizewinning novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, by not trying to cram it all into a two-hour movie. The book spans three decades; the film zeroes in on the years from 1952 to 1955, when two Cuban musicians — Cesar Castillo (Armand Assante) and his younger brother Nestor (Antonio Banderas) — try to make it in New York as mambo musicians. Whatever Glimcher and his astute Cuban-born screenwriter, Cynthia Cidre, lose by narrowing the book's scope, they gain by richly detailing the world that inspired the book's poetry. The extravagantly sexy and witty Mambo Kings is a stunner; suffused with romantic longing, the film goes beyond spectacle to honor the achievements and dammed-up dreams of a culture long misunderstood by Hollywood.
Music and pain are linked for the brothers, who lead a band called the Mambo Kings. It was Cesar who was nearly killed in that club in Havana, by the jealous gangster boyfriend of Nestor's love, María (Talisa Soto). She warns Cesar to get Nestor out of Cuba. In mambo-mad America, the tormented Nestor writes many versions of a song. "Beautiful María of My Soul," to express his yearning for his lost love and homeland.
It sounds like a cornball soap opera, and it might have played that way without the director's alchemy. Glimcher goes where the music takes him, giving familiar feelings the fresh potency of melody. Assante and Banderas are sensational as the loving, warring brothers. Assante's Cesar is more than a macho hothead; watch him in the corner of a scene silently taking measure of his life. And Banderas, the Spanish star of five Pedro Almodóvar films who learned English and the trumpet for his role, is a revelation. He uncovers Nestor's playful side so we can see the beloved little brother Cesar is trying to bully out of depression.
Nestor feels like a ghost, except on-stage. Standing side by side at the mike, their brows creased in concentration, the brothers treat their music like a religion. Cesar even signs the cross in "the name of the mambo, the rhumba and the cha-cha-cha." Glimcher uses the authentic mambo sounds of such legends as band-leader Tito Puente and singer Celia Cruz (both also have acting roles) to show how the characters need music and movement to feel alive. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Cesar and Nestor's first visit to New York's Palladium, where Puente's band is playing. Michael Ballhaus's camera work, Stuart Wurtzel's production design, Ann Roth's costumes, Claire Simpson's editing and Michael Peters's choreography combine miraculously to create a palace of idealized memory where people tired of jobs, prejudice and frustration can find a sultry night of paradise.
To the percussive mambo beat, the camera follows the dapper brothers across the crowded floor, stopping to notice the glimmer of a diamond bracelet on a velvet glove, the slash of red on a man's silk tie and the slit dress on a beauty who's taken the same care in choosing what to wear underneath. Mercifully, politically correct revisionism doesn't intrude on this stylized trip to the Fifties. Part of the seduction of mambo comes in dressing for the dance, and Glimcher, who brings to movies the keen eye he honed as founder of the Pace Gallery, gives the club a sensual, eye-popping opulence.
Cesar is struck by the full figure of cigarette girl Lanna Lake, played with fine sass and unexpected sweetness by Raging Bull's Cathy Moriarty. One whispered "Te quiero" from Cesar and Lanna is mounting him in bed. "Oh, God," says Cesar, happily buried in Lanna's flesh, "I love this country."
Nestor finds himself drawn to the less va-va-voomish Dolores Fuentes (the splendid Maruschka Detmers), a rich man's maid who wants to be a teacher. They marry and have a son, and for a time Nestor is distracted from thoughts of María. He studies a self-improvement manual that says the American dream is in the grasp of everyone, whether you're "Chinaman, Indian or from the planet Mars." But the Mambo Kings, who are working in a meat warehouse by day and playing weddings by night, are getting nowhere. Since Cesar refuses to sign a contract with mobster Fernando Pérez (Roscoe Lee Browne), they're blackballed by the top clubs. Then Desi Arnaz, played by Desi Arnaz Jr., hears them singing and invites them to appear with him on I Love Lucy.
It's a life-changing event for the brothers. The show, cannily edited to include the real Lucille Ball, is a howl. As the brothers' family and friends watch at home, it's moving to see the play of emotions across a sea of proud faces. The irony of the validation the Mambo Kings receive by appearing on national TV is underscored by the tragedy that occurs soon after. In the novel, the Lucy show becomes an albatross for Cesar; later, old and working as a janitor, he finds the reruns a constant reminder of his squandered life. The film doesn't follow Cesar into decline, but Assante shows us Cesar's desolation just the same. Singing Nestor's canción for the last time, Cesar delivers the lyric — "locked forever in a dream" — with a special poignance. Glimcher and Hijuelos take different paths, but both arrive at the same destination — Cesar's grieving heart. Mambo Kings celebrates the mysterious power of a music that can make you feel like dancing and bring you to your knees.