MOVIE REVIEW: “The Cuban”: a film driven by music and how it affects brains and lives.

In 2006 McGill University neuroscience /jazz musician Daniel J. Levitin published This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession  detailing his research in mapping the impact of music on the brain and popularizing the field of musical neuroanatomy, the foundation for the film The Cuban, due to  open in Los Angeles and select cities on July 31st.

At its core, The Cuban is a musical story, not a musical film, although the soundtrack is an earworm for any music lover’s collection.  It is a sweet story of how music’s neurological impact on a  single Alzheimer’s patient in a Canadian nursing home ripples out into the Canadian Afghan ex-pat community, surfaces a family secret, and propels the coming of age of a young woman whose childhood Cuban music and her talent for it was thwarted.

The plot revolves around the a relationship between 19-year-old pre-med student Mina Ayoub  who, orphaned as a baby in Afghanistan, gives up her dream of becoming a singer after being sent by her grandfather to Canada to live with her aunt Bano.  A former doctor, Bano wants to see her own dreams fulfilled through her niece, and she pressures her to pursue medicine. Mina’s heart isn’t in it, and she longs for her childhood when she and her grandfather would sing and play music together.

Mina has a part-time job in a long-term care home, – Bano is the Administrator –  whereMina meets Luis, a near catatonic patient who spends his time in a wheelchair trapped inside his own mind. A poster of Cuban singer Benny Moré inspires Mina to hum a jazz tune in his room which ignites a spark inside him, motivating her to bring in a portable record player, Cuban music, and eventually Cuban food. He comes alive, sings, dances and tells stories of the past he remembers in Cuba and his Cuban love, Elana.  It turns out he was one of Cuba’s most famous guitarists and the stories triggered by the music also triggers Mina’s memories of her grandfather back home, and her own love of music.

The plot moves through storyline verses of love and conflict, choruses of musical connection to life, a climatic bridge and final verse of sadness, joy and a plot twist.

The Cuban is a carefully crafted creation weaving together neuroscience, romance, coming of age, and a bit of cultural conflict with the threads of trumpets, congas, guitars and vocals.  The story, written by Alessandra Piccione from a dream the first-time producer, Taras Koltun, had of reuniting with his grandfather in Russia, pulls the threads together into an entertaining tapestry that both taps your toes and tugs at your heart.

Ana Golja nails the character of Mirna perfectly and evolves it beautifully through coming of age in several ways.  However, Oscar-winner Louis Gossett Jr. as Luis, actually anchors the film, although in many of his scenes he is silent.  As the career frustrated Aunt, Academy-nominated and Emmy-winning actress Shohreh Aghdashloo plays her character with smooth efficiency.

The cast, which also includes Lauren Holly, Giacomo Giannotti and Shiva Negar, is directed deftly but gently by Sergio Navarretta, to bring the characters out with rounded edges and sanded surfaces, with the exception of Luis, so the film moves well  and has its high points but never explodes with emotion.  Special credit goes to Mexican-Canadian cinematographer, Celiana Cardenas who handled the scenes in Cuba, a complicated task with overlapping bureaucracies, contradictory rules, spotty infrastructure, censors and a very different approach to scheduling.

The real star of the film, to me, is the score designed by multi-Juno Award winner and Grammy nominated artist, Hilario Duran, to dissolve the boundaries of age, ethnicity, gender, culture and politics and bridge the present with the past by triggering memory.  Duran was the perfect pick for the film, having grown up and receiving his musical training in Havana, and playing with many greats of Cuban jazz.  Under the supervision of Michael Perlmutter and Dondrea Erauw, he recorded the soundtrack prior to production with top Cuban and Canadian musicians including Buena Vista Social Club member trumpeter Alexis Baro, as well as vocals by renowned Cuban vocalists Alberto, and lead actor Ana Golja ( who unfortunately is not credited on the Spotify soundtrack sent for pre-release review).

The soundtrack is 14 songs, mostly originals by Duran, but with a few classics like the stalwart “Guantanamera”, and some classics like “El Canonero” by Enriquez Benitez , and the beloved Osvaldo Farrés song  “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” made famous by Andrea Bocelli and recently covered by the powerhouse duo Nancy Sanchez and Madame Recamier.

The only loose end in the film was that for an American audience it is not apparent that the film is based in Canada, unless they notice that it’s funded by Telefilm Canada before seeing it. Once you realize that these are Canadians, you understand why they can fly back and forth to Afghanistan and Cuba – something Americans can’t do.  

The Cuban accomplishes multiple tasks – it makes you tap your foot, introduces you to Cuban music and to musical neuroscience, it makes you laugh in places, and leaves you emotionally satisfied, if not wowed.  Most important, it makes you happy.  Maybe that is what your brain does when you watch a good film with great music.

The Cuban is directed by Sergio Navarretta; Music Director Hilario Duran.

The Cuban stars Oscar and Emmy-winner Louis Gossett Jr. Ana Golja, Oscar-nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo, Lauren Holly and Giacomo Gianniotti

Opening in Los Angeles and select cities on July 31,  2020.

 Running time: 109 minutes.  Language: English.  Not Rated

THE CUBAN stars Oscar and Emmy-winner Louis Gossett Jr. (AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, “Roots”, “Watchmen”), Ana Golja (“Degrassi: Next Class”, FULL OUT), Oscar-nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo (HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG, STAR TREK BEYOND), Lauren Holly (DUMB AND DUMBER, “NCIS”) and Giacomo Gianniotti (“Grey’s Anatomy”, “Station 19”). The film was directed by award-winning director, Sergio Navarretta.

About Patrick O'Heffernan

Patrick O’Heffernan is co-host of the LA-based, nationally syndicated weekly program, Music FridayLive! and is a music reviewer for online magazines Vents, The Hollywood Progressive and MusicJunkie. He has also co-hosted a national political talk show, The Fairness Doctrine, and hosted the “Uplinks” media segment on Saturday All Things Considered on NPR. He holds a PhD in International Relations from MIT, has been awarded an Emmy, four Addy’s, and a Webby-Honors, among other awards. He has published 5 books and ghost-written others. A project he co-launched, the North Asia Nuclear Free Zone, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. He serves on the Board of Netroots Nation.

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