“Tito Puente: The King of Latin Music” explores the life and career of one of the most recognizable names in the history of Latin music, the percussionist and bandleader Tito Puente. Ispoke with producer and director George Rivera about his documentary.
Q: Did you know Tito Puente personally? How did you get involved in doing this film?
Tito was an acquaintance, though I did not know him well, and he was familiar with my work as a producer and director. Over a period of time, others had asked to do a biographic film and he always refused. Eventually, through a mutual friend, he let it be known that he would do one with me.
Q: So what was Tito Puente like off the stage? What kind of access did you have to him?
For Tito, being off-stage was very much an extension of being on-stage. He was lots of fun and at the same time a real leader. He was a member of the community, who cared very much about his family and where he came from. He was an ordinary guy: He didn’t project “star” or was a prima donna, and he didn’t expect or ask people to treat him like one. He was very cooperative. We had complete access. Tito made himself available before, after and during performances.
Q: Tito Puente and his music is beloved all over the world – was there a lot of pressure in how you approached the film?
I don’t think there was any pressure except what was self-imposed to get the story right and give the music the respect that it deserved.
Q: Tito Puente passed away in 2000 while you were making the film; what challenges did you face as you finished the film without him?
Originally, we had planned to travel with him to Europe later that year and to record much more footage. We had no idea that the interview that we did with him in San Juan and the performance recorded that evening would be his last. When Tito died a few weeks later, we had to think quickly and change the scope of the project. Fortunately, so many celebrities who knew and admired Tito, as well as his family members, were willing to step up and be interviewed. In the wake of his loss, everyone felt such a tribute was important, and we were able to get the documentary done fairly quickly.
This year, “American Masters” received the 2009 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Nonfiction Series awarded by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (ATAS) at the 61st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards. This is the series’ seventh Primetime Emmy win in this category in the past decade. “American Masters’” winning entrant for this category is Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About. I spoke with the creator and executive producer of “American Masters,” Susan Lacy.
Q. This is the seventh time that “American Masters” has won the Emmy for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series, a record for any PBS series … How do you feel? Where are you going to put the statue?
It feels gratifying to be honored so many times by one’s peers. This is our 7th win for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series in the last 10 years, but prior to submitting for the series, we used to submit individual show for Non-Fiction Special, for which we were also nominated almost every year since the series’ inception. We also won many times, although I can’t remember the exact number of wins. I believe this speaks completely to the quality of our films, as well as the fact that our subject matter has always stood out from the majority of television fare. So, our Prime Time Emmy history has been truly unprecedented, at least in terms of public television series. It makes me feel proud on behalf of public television, as well as all the talented directors, writers and post-production individuals we work with who contribute to the high quality of the series.
The Emmy will join the others, as well as the Peabodys, Grammys and assorted other honors on shelves in my office. It’s pretty crowded up there and everyone worries the shelves will cave in someday.
Q. Since you created “American Masters” in 1984, a lot of programs that profile American artists have come and gone … How do you manage to keep your program relevant to today’s audience?
I think when you are focusing your programs on people whose cultural contribution was significant and whose body of work is defining, the films are always relevant. I have always made it a point to balance so-called “high” art with popular culture to reach as broad an audience a possible. Not everyone will be interested in every subject but, taken together, they cross the boundaries imposed by traditional means of measuring demographics. I also feel strongly that if we remain true to the mission of public television and, therefore, not bow before the ratings gods, we will always stand out, attracting a loyal audience not necessarily drawn to reality television and sitcoms, but who will stick with us year after year and, in fact, continually grow.
Q. What are some of your favorite “American Masters” programs, and why?
It’s difficult to pick my favorites, as I choose the subjects, put the teams together and often direct an episode myself, so there are many children in my stable. I can say that my favorite film to direct was Leonard Bernstein. In general, I am drawn most to those films which successfully transcend the traditional straight-ahead, narrative format to achieve layers of complexity and texture. This isn’t easy to do and not every subject lends itself to this, but when we do hit it, I am ecstatic. I would love to hear from our audience what their favorites are.
Q. What artists can we look forward to seeing on upcoming episodes of “American Masters”?
We have incredible subjects in development for future seasons, including John Lennon, Miles Davis, John Muir, Dustin Hoffman, Johnny Carson, Odetta, Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey, Mel Brooks, Jackson Pollock, Jessye Norman, Stephen Spielberg, Robert Altman, Helen Keller, Alvin Ailey, August Wilson, Joe Papp, Bill T. Jones, William Buckley, Cachao, to name but some of the films we are working on.
Funding remains our biggest challenge. Everyone loves and values the series, but it is very difficult to raise the money to make these films. The high cost of the rights associated with them, as well as our high standards of filmmaking, makes it impossible for them to be produced inexpensively. But, that’s another story.
“Celia the Queen” tells the story of Celia Cruz, the queen of salsa music and a national treasure to the people of Cuba. I spoke with director Joe Cardona about his experiences filming the legendary singer, who passed away in 2003.
Q. Why did you choose to do a film about Celia Cruz?
I know that I speak for my co-director, Mario de Varona when I tell you that Celia was the soundtrack of our lives. She was a performer that transcended generational, ethnic, genre, racial and cultural boundaries and that made her an appealing subject for us.
Q. Celia Cruz was a legendary performer around the world – how did you get access to her to tell her story?
Mario and I sent Celia a proposal for a documentary film in 1998 almost as a lark, never really thinking she would get back to us. Low and behold a few weeks later we received word from her management that she wanted to meet and it all came together rather quickly after that.
Q. So what was Celia like?
Celia was the persona you saw on stage, maybe a few decibels lower but essentially the same person. She was caring, generous, sincere and damn talented.
Q. Celia is beloved all over the world – was there a lot of pressure in how you approached the film?
Once we embarked on this journey, Mario and I knew we were taking on a serious task. We treated the project with the utmost respect and devotion. We poured every ounce of blood sweat and tears into it.
Q. Did you learn anything about Celia during the making of the film that you didn’t know before?
How amazingly generous and giving she was as a human being.
Q. Celia Cruz passed away in 2003; what do you think she would make of the recent political changes going on in Cuba?
I don’t feel comfortable answering this question for Celia. I can tell you that she did not agree with the regime that has governed Cuba for over 50 years and yearned for the day that there would be a change in power so that she could go back.