Movie News & Reviews

‘Playing Lecuona’ brings a Cuban music master to life

Pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba in ‘Playing Lecuona.’
Pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba in ‘Playing Lecuona.’

Playing Lecuona is, on its surface, an idiosyncratic and tightly, even myopically focused documentary on the Cuban composer and pianist Ernesto Lecuona. But by going narrow, this movie also goes deep. Playing Lecuona is a profound, poetic dive into the nature of music, into cultural legacy, and into how the indefinable spirit captured in a piece of music can echo and spread, permeating another composition, or an artist, or a culture – as intangible but universal as air.

The film does not tell the story of Lecuona, who has been called the Cuban Gershwin and whose repertoire ranged from classic songs like Siboney to orchestral works. Born in 1895, he went into exile in 1960.

Instead, director/producers JuanMaVillar Betancourt, from Tenerife in the Canary Islands, where Lecuona died in 1963, and Cuban Pavel Giroud, explore Lecuona’s influence via the profound understanding and musicianship of three great jazz pianists. They are Chucho Valdés, son of renowned bandleader and composer Bebo Valdés, a friend and contemporary of Lecuona’s; Gonzalo Rubalcaba, a Cuban from the generation after Chucho, who lives in South Florida; and the Dominican Michel Camilo.

Patience is required for this film, which often meanders, like the musicians wander down hallways or streets, following Lecuona’s sojourns in Havana, Miami, New York, Spain and the Canary Islands. Revelations accumulate bit by bit. Early on, Valdés watches a young boy practicing piano in a music school in Guanabacoa, the Havana barrio where Lecuona was born, and tells him to emphasize one finger more, telling the boy “that’s the bass.” Later, Camilo, giving a far more sophisticated explanation of Lecuona’s music, shows us how that insistent note carries the weight of Afro-Cuban tradition.

Rubalcaba explains that, because Lecuona opposed the Revolution, his music was removed from the airwaves and the curriculum for a time, so that Rubalcaba had to re-discover him on his own. Valdés, whose father also left soon after 1959, discovers Bebo's name inside a piano whose sound attracts him. “I cried when I saw that piano,” Valdes says. Artistic inheritance will find its way to those who need it.

One of the pleasures of this movie is its loving focus on the most intimate details of music-making. (The exquisite sound quality helps.) You won’t get any closer to the process without being a musician yourself. The camera dwells on Camilo’s hands, blurring with speed; on the towering Valdés, his enormous hands deft and graceful on the keyboard. We see the intellectual, introverted Rubalcaba, sitting on the floor by his piano at home, hunched over a pile of scores as if he’d burrow into them. Valdes and rumba masters Los Muñequitos de Matanzas play Lecuona’s Danza de los Ñañigos, grins spreading across their faces as they merge with a matrix of rhythms that’s almost tangible in its power, their delight sparking our own. One of the film's most moving moments comes as Omara Portuondo sings Lecuona's Siempre en mi corazón (Always in my Heart), tears slowly running down her face, making the song not just an ode to a departed lover, but to the songwriter.

You must, of course, like music in its purest form enough to find all this compelling. But if you are, Playing Lecuona is singularly satisfying. At the movie’s end, an old newsreel shows the composer getting on a ship to leave the island, with text reading “Lecuona has left us.” But as this movie shows, his music is still very much with us.


With: Chucho Valdés, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Omara Portuondo, Ana Belén, Raimundo Amador, Esperanza Fernandez.

Directors: Pavel Giroud, JuanMa Villar Betancourt.

An Insularia release. Running time: 114 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles. No offensive material. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema. Co-director JuanMa Villar Betancort will attend an opening-night reception at the theater from 8:30-9:30 p.m. Friday. For info, visit or call 786-385-9689.