I really enjoyed El último aplauso (2009 dir. German Kral). It's in Spanish without subtitles, but subtitles don't matter so much as a lot of the film is music. It looks great throughout. Really a pity I didn't come across it earlier.
Bar El Chino in the Pompeya barrio of Buenos Aires was started by El Chino Garcia's father, an immigrant from Spain, as a bar and grocery. El Chino grew up passionate about tango, and a singer, so under his direction the groceries disappeared, and the bar became known as a restaurant bar, with music several nights a week. Kral began filming there in the late 1990s. El Chino died in 2001, but his vivacious, gregarious, open-hearted personality lives on in the early footage, included in the film. The first 25 minutes is the old footage from El Chino's day. Then it jumps to 2003 with the visit of one of the singers, Cristina De Los Angeles, to El Chino's grave in Chacarita. Recollections of El Chino follow. In the economic meltdown of 2001-2 the property owners needed to sell the bar, and the singers and musicians who had performed regularly alongside El Chino no longer had a place there: we see two of them busking in Calle Florida. Then Christina visits La Ideal and meets the young tango Orquesta Tipica Imperial. Rehearsals of the orquesta with the four surviving singers follow, and the film concludes with their performance together in the Bar El Chino. Some of the most memorable scenes for me are when the older performers meet up with the young musicians of the orquesta and start rehearsing, start putting their musical experience together. It's interesting: singers accustomed to sing with a guitar suddenly have an orquesta behind them – and they relish it! For one last evening, people come to the Bar El Chino to eat and drink and enjoy the music.
It seems that the bar was later gutted and relaunched as a tango theme bar. How is it that people can make such totally wrong decisions?
The film shows another side of tango. It's not the tango of dance halls and recording studios, the tango we hear at milongas, the product of highly trained arrangers, band leaders and musicians, tango controlled by the music industry. This is live music made by a couple of performers for an audience, tango sung to a guitar – which I think is how most tangos began, as a guitar or piano score with lyrics. In a particularly magical scene, one of the singers sings with a guitar and violin while the others clap the beat, and it's astonishing how tango can suddenly sound Andalucian, although something similar could probably be found in Italian folk music, and in non-European folk music too. It's like seeing the folk roots of tango, but the songs are the same old favourites you hear in the milongas, Naranja en Flor, Por una cabeza, Cambalache, Ventarrón, Malena, Barrio de Tango, Romance de Barrio...
This isn't tango for dance halls, but it's tango at its most popular level since the music has always been more widely popular than the dance. When the dance lost popularity and the orquestas were no longer financially viable, I assume people still sang these songs, listened to them with a singer and guitar, whistled them in the streets. The dance, and to a lesser extent the music, has achieved world-wide popularity, but what I hear in this film is the basis of the music, outside the star system of singers and musicians.
Several of the performers passed away during the decade or so of filming, and subsequently. These were people who were around when the recordings were still new, when the songs we dance to were first heard, people who have sung them all their lives. It's wonderful that this film gives us the opportunity to share their enthusiasm and experience. It's a remarkably sympathetic and respectful presentation of this world, and of tango. Much credit and thanks to the director, German Kral, who was born in Buenos Aires in 1968, studied film in Germany and has worked both in Europe and Argentina: his Tango Berlin (1997) was made with Wim Wenders. The entire film is currently available on YouTube but without subtitles. There might be a German version on DVD, and it's really a pity it hasn't appeared on DVD with English subtitles. It would be great one day to watch it with the words of the songs in English for those of us who aren't fluent in Spanish.
El último aplauso is not to be confused with Bar El Chino (2003, dir. Daniel Burek), which also has footage from the bar and of El Chino and the other performers, but sadly just as a background to a tedious story of film-makers meeting, falling in and out of love, all the while rushing around trying to complete a film about the bar against a background of the economic crisis... Something of a self-parody, and the music hardly gets a look in. It's also on YouTube, and well worth avoiding.