Glimcher's film is a skeleton story beside the novel's near-400 pages of misty-eyed remembrance. The attempt is to simply and chronologically follow the adventures and misadventures of Cesar and Nestor Castillo, up-and-coming mamberos from Cuba, who leave the island in 1952 - for personal-safety, not political, reasons - to become stars of the night-owl, mambo-craze musical scene in the United States at the time. (1952 was an exile year of sorts: Fulgencio Batista overthrew Carlos Prio and had himself "elected" president; the events of The Mambo Kings, therefore, precede Fidel Castro's raid at the Moncada barracks in 1953, his imprisonment and release from the Isle of Pines in 1955, and his return to Cuba on the Granma in 1956, let alone the revolution of 1959.) There's a brief, pre-title sequence in Havana, explaining the brothers' exodus (Nestor's love for Maria, the girlfriend of a threatening Havana club gangster, played by the ever-succulent, peachy Talisa Soto, speaking SoCal-variety Espanol, with subtitles). Thus they head off, drumsticks, trumpet, and music paper in hand, for Nueva York - and a predestined date with Desi Arnaz.
Mambo Kings exceeds well enough in recapturing the penumbral blue lights, the velvety, cavernous interiors, and the sleek elegance of night clubs and cabarets of the early 1950s. The film doesn't go wrong, musically speaking, with the likes of Tito Puente and Celia Cruz (how could it?), here making more distinguished histrionic appearances than in Salsa!, which was hilariously embarrassing. La reina Celia, unfortunately, is relegated to the small part of Evalina Montoya, of the Club Babalu, so all she's asked to do - until the end credits, when she swings and blazes - is ramble in halting barrio English about Yemaya, Chango, and mambo. This is the single instance in which the accent is authentically bad (and, therefore, authentically affecting), quite the opposite of Desi Arnaz, Jr., who normally sounds about as Latin as Dan Quayle, and who attempts in this film to resurrect - oh-so-badly! - Desi Sr.'s famous cubiche delivery in English.
But the casting of Cathy Moriarty as Cesar's cigarette-girl paramour, Vanna Vane (she's called Lanna Lake in the movie - why?), pays off. Moriarty is bombshell-blond, all curves, and more luscious than an ice-cream sundae. She's perfect for this baritonal buttercup, the kind of oversexed, full-figured gal men all over America (and the world) in the Fifties swooned over, as the popular movies of Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, and Jayne Mansfield bear witness to. Her performance doesn't merely suggest the pleasures of the flesh, it oozes them, which makes it all the more frustrating that her band-leader boyfriend and perennial bed partner, Cesar (played by Armand Assante), is such an actorish phoney.
I've never understood the appeal of Armand Assante - even the name sounds like low-grade perfume. Non-Hispanics might be conned by Assante's arms-wide, hyperactive machismo and think it's a realistic portrayal of a Cuban; non-Greeks were taken in by Anthony Quinn's Zorba, too. But even if Armand prayed to San Lazaro every day, reverentially bowed his head to the music of Ernesto Lecuona, drank gallons of malta, and consumed vats of ropa vieja to play Cesar Castillo, he still reeks. When Cesar makes love to Lanna in the movie - one of many such scenes in the book - and coos to her "Te quiero, baby," the dismembered English and Spanish leave you confused: Is this amante Lebanese, Latvian, Liberian, or lunatic? Sweet, doe-eyed Antonio Banderas, playing Nestor Castillo, at least has a natural Hispanic tang for his Cubano, and, initially at least, the Malaga-born actor - alter-ego to Pedro Almodovar in his Babylonian Madrid stories of the Eighties - threatens to run away with the picture. But Banderas looks immensely silly blowing that horn. The Indeterminate Exile Accent Award goes to Maruschka Detmers (born in Holland), pretty as a tulip and about as criolla as a wheel of Gouda cheese, who plays Nestor's wife, Dolores.
But what about that romantic bolero, "Beautiful Maria of My Soul," the tune that takes Cesar and Nestor to the summit of their expatriate dreams, a guest appearance with Desi on I Love Lucy? Composed by Robert Kraft with lyrics by director Glimcher, it appears and reappears throughout the film like a broken 78rpm. Hijuelos describes "Beautiful Maria of My Soul" in the novel as a "song about love so far away it hurts; a song about lost pleasures, a song about youth, a song about love so elusive a man can never know where he stands; a song about wanting a woman so much death does not frighten you, a song about wanting that woman even when she has abandoned you." Well, I'm afraid "Beautiful Maria" is more a song about love so far-fetched it hurts like hell, a song about elusive love so overwrought a man couldn't possibly know where he stands - except maybe the Fontainebleau Hilton on Miami Beach on amateur night - and so much about wanting that woman, waxing sickly sweet all the time, that maybe death is the only expedient way out.
The cheap sangria must have been low in the bottle and well inside them when Kraft and Glimcher sat down to pen this love song. Unbeknownst to them, it's coincidentally the best way to listen to "Beautiful Maria of My Soul."
THE MAMBO KINGS
Directed by Arne Glimcher; written by Cynthia Cidre; with Armand Assante, Antonio Banderas, Cathy Moriarty, Maruschka Detmers, Desi Arnaz, Jr., Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, and Roscoe Lee Browne.