Joe Cardona knew he was in for quite a journey when he sealed a film canister in the summer of 1998 with a proposal inside and sent it to Celia Cruz in New Jersey.
He just didn't know the journey would span a decade.
"It seemed like career suicide considering Celia wasn't so hot at the time," says Cardona, in between puffs of a cigar in his nondescript basement-like office in Coral Gables.
"But we didn't want to do any documentary. We wanted to uncover the real Celia. We wanted Celia unplugged..not the commercialized Celia of the 1980's and 1990's," says Cardona.
Ten years after getting the star's approval and clearing many hurdles, Cardona and Kids in Exile Films Partner Mario De Varona can exhale with the debut of Celia The Queen at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York Saturday.
Intent on digging deep into Cruz's life and revealing her impact throughout the world, the crew captures the true essence of the Cuban music goddess by producing footage of her backstage, minus her trademark wig, at home just hours after landing from Europe and on stage.
While taking plenty of risk throughout, Photography Director Jose Vasquez also gives viewers a glimpse of the impact she carried with fans in places as diverse as Colombia, Japan and New Jersey, where her mere presence caused bedlam.
Cruz's comfort level with 'Los Muchachitos de Miami' is evident during the sincere, intimate and at times edgy 84-minute film, which stretches beyond the occasional bland biopic documentary.
There are heartfelt testimonials from Johnny Pacheco and Willie Colon, both Cruz's cohorts during her Fania days in the 70s.
Although she never tips her hand, there is an interview with Cruz in which she acknowledges Pacheco's trip to Cuba, yet she never admonishes him for it while keeping in line with her stance on the communist island.
Cruz also opens up while offering never-before-heard comments ranging from her stardom to race.
"Somebody is going to have to pinch me," says Cardona. "I won't believe it until I see the credits rolling."
He probably isn't the only one.
Lack of financial support - Cardona admits several non-Cuban investors walked away after initially lending their support - Celia's passing in 2003 and De Varona's departure for a job in advertising had the film on life support.
A handshake agreement with PBS also fell through after the station opted for the self-produced Celia & Friends in 1999. "Shit, we'll just have to hang on to the film," said Cardona.
Cardona began work on other projects, including White Elephant, in order to make ends meet, while De Varona had gone his own way.
But their adoration for Celia - even after the film sat in his office going no where - and a helping hand from actor Andy Garcia, who introduced them to film distributor Antonio Gijon.
As the CEO of HispaFilms, the largest film distributor in Spain, Gijon says that aside from his appreciation for Cuban culture, he took a liking to Cardona and De Varona.
"Those kids sold me with their passion for Celia," says Gijon who says he invested close to a million dollars for the film to be completed. "We're all one because we're the same."
Ironically, it was Gijon who distributed Garcia's The Lost City, a film that took 16 years to finish, in Spain. "Its about more than just the money, its about telling the story about a Cuban icon."
"Who knows what would have happened if not for Antonio," says Cardona. -- Fernando Ruano Jr.
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