Review of 'Vida con Swing' - 1
Below I’ll add a few words regarding my experience of viewing Hernán Gaffet's filmed documentary on the life and career of Oscar Alemán released 2002 as "Oscar Alemán, Vida con Swing" (in English translated to: 'A Swinging Life').
If you are unfamiliar with Gaffet’s film, you may have a look at his web dedicated to the subject: http://www.oscar-aleman.com.ar/. Here Gaffet explains all about his intentions and background research, furthermore there is a detailed timeline profile of Alemán’s biography and a select listing of facts regarding his musical career. I shall not comment on this info here, but will leave it to the reader to apply his own opinion on this background material. As mentioned above I’ll concentrate this short review of the film on my own experience of actually viewing it.
Gaffet’s concept of telling Alemán’s lifestory is to use filmed interviews as the main resource combined with follow-up explanation and spoken info by a ‘storyteller’ sometimes visible and sometimes just a voice on the soundtrack speaking behind different historic footage, dramatization or arranged stills. Of course, the soundtrack also includes music by Alemán, most of it issued recordings from his whole career. The filmed interviews are with Argentine key persons having knowledge on Alemán’s personality and career, which adds a necessary limitation to the documentation: We have a view of Alemán from an Argentine point of view, further sustained by the fact that all interviews and spoken info are in the Spanish language only. If you are unfamilar with the Spanish language, the English subtitles add a decent translation, however, you have to concentrate intensely to absorb all details, because the tempo and flow of information is well above average. The tempo of the film is marked already in the trailer, which is a filmed vue of one of the large main streets of Buenos Aires as it looks today, shot from a streetcar at high speed as it seems. Together with fast clippings from interviews to follow this intro to the subject of the film creates a somewhat hectic atmosphere. The purpose of the snapshot interviews is to inform the viewer about Alemán’s remarkable skills as a professional musician, guitarist and showman using jazz as a medium to excel his capacity as an artist. However, this is only one part of the picture, as it is Gaffet’s main purpose to ‘go behind the scene’ and make a portrait of the person by telling Alemán’s life story,which contains both tragedy and the dark side of success. From this point on the film moves into a more moderate tempo, taking time to concentrate on details of Alemán’s life and career. Gaffet has chosen to use chronology as the composing scheme for telling the story, which consists of five chapters or acts like in a classic drama.
The first chapter is about Alemán’s childhood and early youth, focusing on the tragic story of his family. We are informed about the formation and ups and downs of the Moreira family troupe featuring a very young Oscar as a dancer actually leading to his first professional success as a winner of a malambo contest in Buenos Aires at the age of six. However, the Moirera troupe soon meets hard times causing financial problems and the split of the family, as Oscar’s father is unable to find work and supply sufficient money for his familiy’s living, in the end leading to his committing suicide and his wife dieing from malnutrition after giving birth to the youngest of the Moreira Alemán siblings. From this point young Oscar is left on his own and forced to survive from day to day, living the tough life of a street urchin in Santos, Brazil, where he had been left alone by his father and a brother and now is neglected by his other siblings due to unclear reasons. In this part of the film Gaffet uses professional actors to dramatize and visualize young Oscar’s situation, continueing this concept in the story about how he got his first instrument, the four stringed cavaquinho, and how he struggled to get into business as a performer. The actors do a convincing job, the dramatization works and has the viewer feeling pity and sympathy for our main character. However, exactly this is also an example to document that the film mixes facts and fiction. The purpose of this may be for the benefit of documenting young Oscar’s heroic struggle to survive as an artist in spe, but I experienced this part as rather sentimental.
The secound part of the film informs about Alemán’s teaming up with Bueno Lobo, the formation of Les Loups and their partnership with Flemming’s company for the tour of Europe in 1929. This is documented by spoken info and filmed clippings from Alemán’s scrapbooks, and regarding the split of Les Loups we have the story about Bueno Lobo’s unsuccessfull try to get a job as a member of Josephine Baker’s orchestra, followed by Alemán’s first refusal to take it out of loyalty to Lobo, which he, however, wouldn’t repeat after having the invitation from the diva herself. Alemán’s loyalty to Lobo, however, wasn’t gone, from a short interview with his granddaughter, Jorgelina Alemán, we learn that Oscar was concerned about Lobo and kept sending him money after they parted as a team and Oscar now had success with Josephine Baker.
In the third part of the documentary we learn about Alemán’s experiences in Europe during the 1930’ies, focusing on his stay in Paris where he would join the jazzscene and get aquainted with American jazzmen while keeping a job as a leading member of The Baker Boys, Josephine Baker’s tour band. This part of the documentary is well documented by historical footage, film clippings and spoken info – the scoop is a clip from the lost movie “Three Argentines in Paris” featuring Alemán in a couple of scenes. We have the well known stories about his meetings with Ellington and Armstrong and the friendship of Django Reinhardt, of course, entertaining details to keep the viewer hanging on. However, details on Alemán’s activities outside the Parisian jazzscene are missing more or less, not much is said about his tours with the Baker company. This may seem a minor detail, anyway, it’s a bit strange to listen to the soundtrack music accompanying the info on Alemán’s participating in the Parisian jazzscene, as some of the music played actually was recorded in Copenhagen, 1938!