The Poet of Havana

By Tim McEown

Mailed on April 20, 2016

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Dear Carlos Valera

Dear Carlos,

While occasionally drifting into hagiography, The Poet Of Havana definitely fulfills an important goal for a documentary—it tells most of us something new. You are really only known to a few people outside of your native Cuba, and we are all the poorer for that fact. This film is noteworthy because it gives the rest of the world the opportunity to experience what Cuba has known for the last thirty years—that you are a transcendent musician and performer.

As the US government continues to haltingly reverse decades of cold war isolation, Cuba is slowly emerging from a fifty-year exile. This dramatic sea change is being met with cautious ambivalence by Cuban leadership but is a long awaited dawn for its people. That you have been a vital part of Cuban cultural life for the last thirty years, but you have also been stymied creatively at almost every turn, is just one of the numerous injustices that have manifested during this retrograde period.

The Poet Of Havana centers around a series of excerpts from a single concert—interspersed with what seem to be an endless stream of talking heads—where you share the stage with various Latin American performers, Cuban and otherwise, as well as Jackson Browne (who has been an advocate for your work for decades now). All of the participants seem completely sincere in their devotion—and their diversity, both in age as well as approach, reveal the breadth and scope of what is clearly a thriving, if somewhat bottled up, Cuban music scene. The concert sequences are crisply shot and edited, and really allow you to shine as a performer. This would have been a stronger film if there had been more of that, and less of the grainy historical footage and seemingly endless shots of you wandering the Cuban landscape, apparently deep in artistic contemplation.

Offstage you’re an oddly behatted, scruffy fellow who seems entirely certain of his iconic status within the larger Cuban culture—and possessed of what would be considered, in some, an unhealthy self-regard. Your songwriting is earnest on the page, almost sophomoric, but is transformed when you’re in front of an audience. The same is true of all the people who have come to perform with you. To a man (as well as one woman) their interviews end up coming off as treacle: oversweet and almost fawning—similar to the kind of pro forma butt-licking that used to be a staple of late night television. Once on stage though, what seemed like empty hyperbole becomes fact. The performances are, across the board, joyful and completely engaging.

The Poet of Havana is the embodiment of the central conceit that informs Iñárritu’s Birdman; how a bunch of seemingly pompous, insecure, pretentious men and women filled with their own self-importance somehow create a beautiful truth from their apparent self-delusion.

Once the film ended I came home and tried to share with my wife at least some of what I had experienced. The problem is, even in this age of a seemingly endless stream of anyone with a camera, wifi and a misbegotten sense of their musical talent managing to flood YouTube, there is very little of your work available. That irony, while leaving a sour taste in my mouth, will perhaps be mitigated a little bit in the coming years. Here’s hoping you can reap the benefits of the long overdue opening up of Cuban culture.



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