Dir:Benito Zambrano. Sp-Cuba-Fr. 2005. 110mins.

Spanish director Benito Zambrano scored a surprise hit athome in 1999 with his first film, the intense mother-and-daughter drama Solas.Habana Blues is a very different product - a feelgood slice of raw Havanaenergy which uses its conventional but solid plot as a frame on which to hangalmost two hours of contemporary Cuban music. This is the MTV-generationequivalent of Buena Vista Social Club, with rappers, anarcho-punk bandsand hip-hop-salsa fusion replacing the trad sounds of Wenders' storyboardedmusic documentary.

Releasedin Spain in March, the film has performed strongly, grossing $3.5m and stillfeaturing in the top 15 after nine weeks. As with Buena Vista, the soundtrackalbum has also been a hot seller.

HabanaBlues'younger target audience may paradoxically make this a harder pitch abroad,though. Its auteur credentials gave Buena Vista a solid arthouse basefrom which to launch forays into the mainstream, while outside ofSpanish-speaking territories, Habana Blues falls into the uneasy limboof the subtitled commercial youth-oriented movie. Latin America and Cuba-phileterritories like Italy are likely to be its easiest targets

Onone level, Habana Blues is a classic "let's put on a concert" yarn,which culminates, like Buena Vista, with the inevitable live footage.The obstacles here are not so much the extreme age or whereabouts of the bandmembers as hostility from a government that frowns on forms of youth music notpromoted or co-opted by the regime, and the fact that most of the musicians andtheir families are desperate to get out of Cuba, either legally (via tours andrecording contracts) or illegally (on a fishing trawler to Florida).

Thereare actually two bands in Habana Blues: one is the on-screen groupfronted by dreadlocked saxophonist Ruy and Afro-hunky guitarist Tito - playedby Cuban actors Alberto Yoel Garcia Osorio and Roberto San Martin. The other isthe real 31-strong soundtrack band assembled by flamenco producer Jose Luis Garridoand a team of three Madrid-based Cuban musicians including singer-songwriterEquis Alfonso, who provides the voice of Roberto San Martin.

ButHabana Blues is also a love story, which bounces back and forth betweentwo relationships. The buddy match between Ruy and Tito will be tested when ateam of Spanish producers come to Havana on the lookout for "underground" acts(the film is perceptive on the way the West loves the myth of the oppressedartist - though in this respect, it manages to have its cake and eat it, as ittoo is selling the frisson of kicking against the regime).

Setagainst this is the tempestuous relationship between Tito and his wife Caridad,who is fast losing patience with her partner's compulsive womanising. It isonly here - largely thanks to a standout performance by Yailene Sierra as theput-upon wife and mother of two - that the film touches more complex emotionalchords. Otherwise it is happy to function as a uncomplicated tribute to thespirit of Havana, where the director went to study in 1992.

Thecamera plays along, lingering on crumbling sea-front facades, caressing the redopen-top Chevrolet that Ruy drives, and coming over all caliente and hand-heldin the live music sequences. But though it lacks the emotional depth of Solas,Habana Blues is a refreshing insider's view of young Cubans, most ofwhom are more interested in making ends meet and having a good time than in thefading charms of international communism.

Maestranza Films
Warner Bros Pictures
ICAIC (Cuba)
Pyramide Productions

Pyramide International

Antonio P Perez

Benito Zambrano

Jean Claude Larrieu

Fernando Pardo

Jose Luis Garrado
Enrique Ferrer
Dayan Abad
Equis Alfonso

Alberto Yoel Garcia Osorio
Roberto San Martin
Yailene Sierra