Artist/director Julian Schnabel may not be immortalized with a monument in Havana à la John Lennon, or even recognized with an Oscar, but Before Night Falls will endure as a requisite portrait of the agony and the ecstasy of the intelligentsia in revolutionary Cuba. Schnabel took poetic license with the past in his masterful depiction of the life and times of writer Reinaldo Arenas, and does so with this moving soundtrack that's fantastic if not verisimilar.
While the film encompasses a period from the late 1950s to 1980 in Cuba, significant sounds of the era are absent. There is no Silvio Rodriguez song among the album's sixteen tracks. Pablo Milanes, Los Zafiros, Los Van Van, Orquesta Reve, and Lennon and McCartney also are not included.
Instead Schnabel, his wife Olatz Lopez Garmendia, and producer Tommy LiPuma chose romanticism over realism and selected mostly artists who had their heyday in Havana before 1959: Ernesto Lecuona, Beny Moré, Orquesta Aragon, Trio Matamoros, La Sonora Matancera, and Bebo Valdes among them. Like the film the CD is evocative rather than purely documentary, and it captures the soul of Cuba in son, boleros, and Valdes's exquisite piano playing. One imagines Arenas would have enjoyed this fine suite of songs that includes evergreens "El Que Siembra su Maiz," performed by Trio Matamoros and "Los Tamalitos de Olga" from Orquesta Aragon. The exceptional, eccentric Bola de Nieve, rarely found on Cuban compilations, is here with "¿Por Que Me La Dejaste Querer?" These and other familiar songs create a fanciful setting for the movie, invoking a nostalgic mood as Arenas's and Cuba's coming-of-age stories unfold.
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The music grows gradually more introspective and somber in tone. "Ay Mariposa" is a jarringly beautiful ballad penned and performed by the controversial trovador Pedro Luis Ferrar who, like Arenas, has had his run-ins with the regime over his expressive writing. Lebanese singer Fairuz's mournful "Kamata Mariyam" provides a spiritual crescendo, framed by two plaintive tracks of the original score by Carter Burwell, one of which features a throat-knotting reading of Arenas's verse by Javier Bardem (who plays the poet in the film). The brief last track, a march whistled to the beat of Afro-Cuban drums, truly is a sublime musical moment.