A Latin Translation: Robert Mugge discusses the making of “The Return of Rubén Blades”

By on September 16, 2016

Robert Mugge gave Night Flight this exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the making of his film, The Return of Rubén Blades, his portrait of actor, writer, attorney, activist, and Grammy Award winning world music artist Rubén Blades. Watch it now as part of our collection of Robert Mugge music documentaries over on Night Flight Plus.

Ruben onstage

Between 1982 and 1984, I produced two feature-length music docs for the UK’s brand-new fourth TV network, appropriately named Channel 4 Television, and in between, I made Cool Runnings: The Reggae Movie for the men who ran the Sunsplash Festival in Jamaica.

Those first two films I produced for Channel 4 were Black Wax with Gil Scott-Heron, now newly re-released on DVD and Blu-ray by MVD Visual, and Gospel, According To Al Green.

After both were completed, Andy Park, Channel 4’s Commissioning Editor for Music who had funded both films, announced he would soon be leaving the channel. I quickly realized that, if I wanted him to commission another film from me, I would need to act fast.

In early 1985, with Park halfway out the door at Channel 4, I proposed, and he approved, a portrait of Panamanian-American singer, songwriter, musician, activist, essayist, lawyer, and politician Rubén Blades, who could rightly have been named “The Most Interesting Man in the World” decades before the tongue-in-cheek Dos Equis commercials dubbed actor Jonathan Goldsmith as such.

My beautiful picture

At that time, Blades was the new darling of American rock critics thanks to the release of the 1984 Elektra album Buscando América, his most successful attempt yet at “crossing over” into mainstream Anglo acceptance, even as his longtime Latin fans stayed with him.

His previous albums on salsa label Fania Records, with and without Nuyorican musician and bandleader Willie Colón, had made him a household name among Spanish-speaking salsa fans worldwide. But Blades was looking for far more, both musically and otherwise, and he seemed on the verge of becoming a multi-hyphenated, bilingual superstar.

Ruben onstage #4

The release of Buscando América, with its intricate Latin dance rhythms, its rock-like intensity, and its poetic, Spanish-language reflections on the often turbulent relationship between the U.S. and Latin America, showed Blades to be a major cultural force.

But what made him so much more “interesting” as a film subject was that, simultaneously, he was starring in a highly autobiographical independent feature titled Crossover Dreams which he himself had co-written, was earning a Master of Laws degree (LL.M.) in International Law from Harvard Law School, was publishing political essays in both Spanish and English, was splitting his time between the U.S. and his native Panama in anticipation of future political ambitions, was reading scripts for additional acting roles in the hope of improving the image of Latinos in Hollywood films and TV series, was touring internationally with his superb band, and was planning ever new material he hoped would further dissolve barriers between the English-language and Spanish-language music industries.

As a documentary filmmaker seeking to capture the life and career of Rubén Blades on film, I saw my own biggest challenge as simply keeping up with this seemingly tireless new subject.

Larry and Ruben

Happily, Blades, Park, and I did come to terms, after which my usual crew (director of photography and Steadicam operator Larry McConkey; cameramen Chris Li, Dave Sperling, and Erich Roland; audio director Bill Barth, etc.) and I spent the spring and summer of 1985 shooting repeatedly with Blades and those around him.

The way it often works with these music docs of mine is that we’ll start out filming and recording a concert that can act as the spine of the film.

Ruben onstage #2

Then, once I’m familiar with the performance footage we have available, we can jump into filming interviews, discussions, and other sorts of documentary footage meant to illustrate and illuminate the selected songs.

In the case of Rubén Blades, we got permission from owner Larry Gold of New York’s S.O.B.’s (Sounds of Brazil) to film him in concert with his band Seis del Solar. S.O.B.’s is a great space, though not huge.

So, our crew spent the day hanging lights, establishing three stationary camera positions, and creating narrow pathways for Larry’s Steadicam to traverse within tight quarters. At the same time, New York-based Randy Ezratty and his Effanel Music brought over a multitrack recording truck, miked the stage, and organized a sound check for the band.

The evening shoot went well, with a strong performance from Blades and a responsive crowd.

audience

Actually, I remember the shoot being fairly routine for us, aside from Blades mugging for Larry’s Steadicam-mounted camera as it approached him, shark-like, from behind or either side. Otherwise, my one regret of the evening was not being able to convince incognito crowd member Joe Jackson, the well-known English singer-songwriter-musician, to give us an interview.

Even though Jackson had become a good friend and vocal fan of Blades, his demurral was not unexpected, in that his 1984 tour had been brutal, after which he simply wanted to lay low. I decided not to press.

At any rate, with a great concert in the can, we turned our attention to fleshing out the Blades narrative with a wide range of related activities. First up was a day of Blades discussing his musical and political ideas, both alone in his apartment and in a New York park with appreciative author and journalist friend Pete Hamill.

Ruben with Pete Hamill #2

In the apartment, he also provided introductions for his key songs, including providing English-language translations of his Spanish-language lyrics, so we would not have to resort to onscreen subtitles.

In addition, he showed us the stack of Hollywood scripts which awaited his attention, and which he hoped would offer better images of Latinos than had most U.S. films to date.

Ruben with Pete Hamill #3

After those two New York shoots, we joined Blades at Amigo Studios in Los Angeles where engineer George Massenburg was recording his duet with Linda Ronstadt on one of his latest songs.

At first, not surprisingly, Massenburg was wary of our small film crew invading his sacred recording space. But once he got used to our lights and relatively unobtrusive shooting techniques, he became more comfortable with our presence.

Ruben and Linda #2

Ronstadt, by contrast, was as welcoming and accommodating as could be. At this point in her career, she was well-established as the Queen of Rock. Yet she steadfastly refused to be typed as that and that alone, and she never stopped searching for new sorts of musical challenge.

For Blades, collaborating with her on the song “Silencios” offered him another opportunity for crossover into the American musical mainstream while, for her, it offered the chance to practice singing in Spanish as she planned her own LPs of Mexican songs she learned as a child.

Linda and Ruben #2

Meanwhile, for our crew, shooting take after take of world-class singers exploring a deeply resonant song was enormous fun. But even better was interviewing the two about their respective struggles and ambitions in the music business, as well as their personal and professional ideals.

I’ve never seen my late sound man more embarrassed than he was when Ronstadt cut her finger on the clip of her interview mike, and we all felt bad when the carry-out sandwich she was brought triggered one of her food allergies, lending her face a pinkish glow that shows in the film to this day.

Ruben and Linda #3

Yes, this was decades before she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, but she already suffered from assorted allergies, and she never knew when she might succumb. Incredibly, though, she could not have been sweeter about either the cut finger or the allergic reaction, and she still was happy to let us interview Blades and her together after a long day of recording.

Having read about her struggles to earn respect and control of her own destiny in the music business, I assumed one reason for her cooperation was our recognition of her as a serious artist.

Larry, Linda, Ruben

Certainly, I had admired her work since the 1971 release of Carla Bley’s jazz opera Escalator Over The Hill, in which she had played a key role. But it may also be that, like Blades, her obvious talent has always been matched by equally great manners – not something one always encounters with successful artists.

Returning to the East Coast, we next met Blades at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he was to receive his newly earned Master of Laws degree.

Contrary to his serious demeanor when we had interviewed him in New York, and his somewhat businesslike one at the session in L.A., Blades couldn’t have been happier or more playful than he was that day at Harvard, and with very good reason.

Ruben and his dean

Here he was with his Cuban-born mother, Anoland Diaz, an actor and musician herself; his dean and professor, Frederick Snyder, who looked more like a musician than did his famous student; and several young friends from the university – all of whom would witness him achieving one of the premier goals of his life.

His joy in this setting was contagious, and as we documented his thoughts and feelings on such an important day, we felt almost like family members ourselves.

Ruben and Mother

Once our equipment was set, we filmed Blades observing the school’s larger graduation ceremony. Onstage was a student wearing the sort of white toga associated with ancient Rome and amusing his peers with pseudo Latin gibberish. For me, this was a gift, allowing me to create a joking contrast between the two kinds of “Latin” on display that day.

From there, we moved to the smaller stage where graduate degrees would be awarded. School officials allowed us to film the formal ceremony, then, at our request, gave Blades his degree a second time, while we shot from closer up.

We also filmed a nice exchange between Blades and his dean, who clearly had formed a strong friendship. But for us, the highlight of this beautiful spring day was watching Blades interact with his visibly proud mother, alternately teasing her the way grown sons are wont to do, and then showing her how much he cared.

I have a similar relationship with my own mother – alternately teasing and loving – so I found this extremely sweet.

In fact, I dedicated the film to my late father, my mother, and a late family friend who, together, gave me the sort of support that Blades’ family gave to him.

Ruben with mother at graduation

Our final shoot was, in many ways, our most challenging. Blades was returning to Panama to handle various bits of business, including finishing moving into his new high-rise apartment in Panama City.

Ruben in Panama #1

Naturally, we jumped at the chance to film him in the country of his birth.

For the Panama trip, I figured I could only afford a small crew, which needed to include Steadicam operator Larry McConkey, sound man Bill Barth, and cameraman Erich Roland, serving as Steadicam assistant.

Bob and Bill

I couldn’t afford to bring my other cameramen, but my longtime cinematographer Chris Li phoned his cousin Mark Wong at the U.S. Embassy in Panana and got us helpful advice about entering the country and filming there.

Ultimately, though, I decided I could afford a rare luxury for one of my shoots, which was to bring along a dedicated stills person. I had been impressed with a female photographer who shot a photo of me for the Village Voice, so I hired her to shoot stills at the S.O.B.’s concert and was impressed once again.

Therefore, I figured I’d try adding her to our usual well-knit crew, and off we all went to Panama.

Ruben in Panama #3

One thing to remember is that, in 1985, Panama was still something of a police state, with dictator General Manuel Noriega very much in charge.

For that reason, from the time we arrived at the Panama City airport, we saw armed soldiers everywhere we looked, which quickly put all of us on our best behavior – or more accurately, all of us but one.

Apparently, our New York photographer was bad with social cues, and when we were driving our rental van from the airport to our hotel, she chose the worst possible time to prove it.

Just as we were passing a truck full of armed soldiers, she stuck her whole upper body out a rear window of the van, screamed, and waved wildly at the soldiers.

Stunned and somewhat frightened, I yelled for her to get back into the vehicle, but she was slow to respond.

Ruben in Panama #2

Fortunately, the soldiers didn’t seem to notice, and we soon made our way to the hotel-casino where we were staying. As we arrived, we happened to notice legendary Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán coming out of the casino, which briefly took our minds off of what had just happened.

But once we were checked in, I decided that, rather than risk additional outbursts, we would send the photographer back to New York City the following morning. I even paid her what I had promised, but I was determined that, for the good of the mission, she had to go.

Ruben in apartment #5

During our time in Panama, we filmed Blades at multiple locations, beginning with his new high-rise apartment where he gazed out over the city and reflected on its future. We also accompanied him and his genteel father, Rubén Blades, Sr., to the neighborhood where Blades grew up.

For the record, the elder Rubén Blades was a prominent former athlete, a percussionist, and a graduate of what was then called the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in Washington. In other words, in his own ways, he was perhaps as interesting as his son.

Ruben in Panama with father

The two of them seemed quite at home in their former neighborhood. But from the moment we arrived, local children pestered Blades for autographs. Eventually, he gave in to them, asking his father to take over our filmed tour, in spite of his somewhat broken English. But in no time at all, Blades himself rejoined us, and I wound up using the entire charming sequence.

Our next stop with Blades was a tourist site along the Panama Canal where he discussed the often tense relations between his native and adoptive countries, and his hope that they would one day improve.

Ruben at Panama Canal

On the personal side, when we were setting up at the canal, Blades asked me for the correct usage of a word he planned to include in his comments. I knew, of course, that English was Blades’ “second language,” so it should not have surprised me that he still had more to learn. But he was already so articulate, and so passionate, with English that it did surprise me.

Ruben at Panama Canal

On the other hand, I was touched that he now trusted me enough to open himself in that way, and grateful that he appeared as invested in the project’s success as was I.

As we were leaving the Panama Canal site, Blades pointed out some local Kuna Indians who were selling mola textiles on the side of the road. He encouraged us to buy some. So, I asked our driver to pull over and then examined these unique works of art.

I learned that day that mola designs started out as Kuna Indian body painting, but when Europeans introduced cloth, the Indians applied their designs to making clothing instead, with multiple layers of colored cloth sewn together and then selectively cut back to reveal the layers below.

The mola I bought are decorated with bird and fish designs and look something like the crayon drawings we did as children, applying lots of different colors to a piece of paper, covering those assorted colors with black, then scraping away parts of the black to reveal the colors below.

Mola

That’s the general effect, though the mola are far more sophisticated, of course, involving multiple layers of intricately woven cloth that, together, create dazzling designs.

When I brought my newly purchased goods back to the van, Blades pronounced them to be among the nicer ones he’d seen, and I’ve cherished them ever since. In fact, to this day, two of them, appropriately framed, hang above my living room fireplace.

If I remember correctly, our final shoot with Blades was in a Panama City courtyard where he declared his deepest ambition, which was to offer himself as a candidate for the presidency of Panama.

In the film, this statement is left open-ended because, in that moment, there is no way to know if this would ever happen. But it’s a striking, matter-of-fact admission of how these many disparate goals of his could actually comprise a larger plan to help lead, and thereby assist, his native country.

Ruben onstage #3

Years before making this film, I was heavily influenced by the research of Joseph Campbell, and especially his seminal 1949 work The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell explored the ancient and traditional myths of countless cultures and drew attention to those that recurred in different places and times.

He was especially interested in myths of the heroic journey, wherein an individual – usually male – would leave his community at a time of major distress (famine, disease, chaos, military occupation, etc.); travel into the forest, into the night, into the land of the gods, or into an exotic foreign country; locate a weapon, a treasure, a talisman, a special power, a new brand of wisdom, a gift from the gods, or even a foreign army; and finally, return to his home community with that object, or power, or army, and use it to relieve his homeland’s distress.

As Campbell noted, these early myths are the precursors of countless stories of later cultures, including our own, and I decided that, wherever possible, I would intentionally make films that drew upon these timeless narrative structures.

As just one example, my 1984 film Gospel According To Al Green chronicles how Green found success in popular music but dissolution in his own life, had a gradual religious conversion, and later followed a path of ministering to others, musically as well as spiritually.

As another example, in my 1999 film Hellhounds on My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson, I examined the life, career, and influence of blues legend Robert Johnson who, reputedly, made a Faustian bargain with the Devil in return for mastery of the blues.

Ruben with guitar

In Campbell’s view, the great heroic tales that make up these myths typically break down into three parts – separation, initiation, and return – which also parallel the three acts of many “well-made” plays and films.

I gave my Rubén Blades portrait the title of The Return of Rubén Blades because, in it, he tells us where his journey started (growing up in his native Panama); he shows us the heights he has reached thus far (gaining increasing international acceptance as a musician and actor based in the United States, and earning an advanced degree in political science and international law from one of the world’s most respected universities); and he tells us where all of this is leading (his eventual return to Panama, a run for President, and the use of all he has learned on his journey to help his people).

Ruben, Linda, me

The film is a record of his journey as of 1985, but also of his vision for the future, which is still playing out today.

For instance, although Blades went on to lose his bid for the presidency in 1994, he served as Panama’s Minister of Tourism from 2004 till 2009 and, reportedly, he hopes to run for President again in 2019.

In another sense, my recent remastering of The Return of Rubén Blades and its release on Blu-ray by MVD Visual represents a “return” of the film itself after years of it being commercially unavailable.

Moreover, although my crew and I documented events that were actually happening in 1985, we focused on values we saw as ongoing, in the hope this mythic tale of a multiple Grammy winner, respected Hollywood actor, and committed political activist would, in the larger sense, have continuing appeal.

© 2016 Robert E. Mugge

RUBEN BLADES FEATURED

About Robert Mugge

Robert Mugge has been making feature-length documentaries and music films for the past four decades. According to France’s Libération, “Mugge is nothing less than the best music filmmaker on the planet." Among the better-known of his 34 films to date are DEEP BLUES, GOSPEL ACCORDING TO AL GREEN, SUN RA: A JOYFUL NOISE, BLACK WAX with Gil Scott-Heron, SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS with Sonny Rollins, ENTERTAINING THE TROOPS with Bob Hope, HELLHOUNDS ON MY TRAIL: THE AFTERLIFE OF ROBERT JOHNSON, THE KINGDOM OF ZYDECO, BLUES DIVAS with Morgan Freeman, and NEW ORLEANS MUSIC IN EXILE. His latest productions are ZYDECO CROSSROADS: A TALE OF TWO CITIES and STEVE BELL STORYTELLER: A NEWSMAN LIVING HISTORY. Since 2005, his production partner has been Diana Zelman, to whom he is now married. For five years, he was an Endowed Chair Professor at Ball State University, and for two years he was Filmmaker in Residence for Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Many of his films, both old and new, are currently being released on Blu-ray or DVD by MVD Visual. Much more about Mugge's career is available at www.robertmugge.com.