Shot in hotter-than-life candy color, bursting with music and movement and a romantic fatalism that borders-agreeably — on kitsch, The Mambo Kings is a tinsel-edged dream of a movie. Though based on Oscar Hijuelos’ Pulitzer Prize- winning 1989 novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, the film doesn’t look or feel as if it were inspired by a book. As directed by the art gallery owner-turned-movie producer Arne Glimcher (this is his first time behind the camera), it’s closer in spirit to a deep-dish Hollywood soaper from the ’50s — one of those moody-flashy show-biz sagas like The Bad and the Beautiful or the Judy Garland-James Mason A Star Is Born, in which the characters reach for fame, glory, and love, only to learn they can’t have it all.
In The Mambo Kings, the ones doing the reaching are the Castillo brothers, Cesar (Armand Assante) and Nestor (Antonio Banderas), two impossibly dashing mambo-playing virtuosos who’ve arrived in New York City from their native Havana. It’s 1952, and the mambo, beneath its glossy big-band surface, pulsates to a rhythm that is ecstatically sensual; it’s like Hispanic rock & roll.
Early on, there’s an amazing sequence in which the Castillos go out to the Palladium nightclub, only to enter a lavish Technicolor pleasure palace. Everything that passes before the camera, from the high-on-the-hog customers with their flowing champagne to the brothers’ psychedelic neckties, seems lit from within. When Cesar, in an impromptu audition, leaps on stage to join Tito Puente (playing himself) at his row of metal congas, it almost doesn’t matter that Puente is a star and Cesar a nobody. The sheer power of the music is bigger than anyone in the room. The Mambo Kings is likable in a grandiose way — it’s a jumble of old-movie contrivances-yet it captures that pre-Elvis moment when the spirit of Latino pop music seemed freer, wilder, more purely unhinged than anything mainstream American culture had to offer.
Each of the characters is driven by his own obsession. Cesar, the elder Castillo, is cocky and ambitious, a man who craves success yet only on his own terms; he refuses to truckle to the mobster (Roscoe Lee Browne) who controls the local clubs. Nestor, who’s shier but in his quiet way every bit as fanatical as his brother, can’t stop dreaming about Maria, the woman he loved in Cuba (and who betrayed him with another man). In her place, he marries the sweet, devoted Dolores (Maruschka Detmers). Yet the moment Dolores and Cesar exchange a sizzling stare, we know these two are really in love.
It’s probably no longer possible for audiences to buy completely into this sort of succulent melodrama, a movie in which the characters’ deepest desires are always in perfect, symmetrical conflict with their sense of honor. The appeal — and limitation of The Mambo Kings is perfectly captured in the scenes where the Castillos perform ”Beautiful Maria of My Soul,” the ”tragic” tribute Nestor has written to his eternal love. The song is the purest bathos; when the brothers sing in harmony, it sounds exactly like a line from ”Endless Love.” Yet the movie serves up this lost-soul romanticism with such innocent fervor that its purplish spirit is hard to resist.
It helps to have actors like Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas, who give the film a dose of exotic star power; they make the macho-Hispanic histrionics feel fresh. Assante is an American, born and raised in the U.S., but with his dark complexion and Continental profile he has always looked as if he belonged behind a matador’s cape. Here, speaking in a thick Cuban accent, he’s fiercely magnetic, never more so than when Cesar is nursing emotional wounds he’s too much of a Real Man to reveal.
Banderas, the baby-faced Spanish superstar best known for his work in Pedro Almodovar’s movies (and for his brief appearance as the apple of Madonna’s eye in Truth or Dare), learned to speak English for this part, and he gives a surprisingly confident and subtle performance as the implosive Nestor. There are also several notable performers in smaller roles. Desi Arnaz Jr. shows up as Desi Arnaz Sr.; he has his father’s forehead but, I’m afraid, not a trace of his volatile charm. On the other hand, the African-Cuban music star Celia Cruz brings an Old World slyness to her role as a benevolent club owner. And Maruschka Detmers, the Dutch actress who bared all in Godard’s First Name: Carmen, proves that she can play virginal innocence with soul. She turns her final line — four little words — into the most overheated romantic moment in the entire film. 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. B