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Based on Oscar Hijuelos' 1989 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Arne Glimcher's 1992 film The Mambo Kings tells the passionate story of Nestor and Cesar Castillo (Antonio Banderas and Armand Assante), two brothers who flee Cuba in the early 1950s and attempt to make it big as musicians in New York. Cesar embraces their new life in America with gusto and works to put their new band, The Mambo Kings, on the map. Nestor, however, is haunted by the memory of Maria (Talisa Soto), the love he left behind in Cuba, and longs to return home. The Mambo Kings is an exuberant film bursting with color, energy and irresistible music that chronicles the ups and downs of two brothers and their quest for the American Dream.
The Mambo Kings was the first feature film ever directed by Arne Glimcher, a powerful figure in the New York art world and founder of the prestigious Pace Gallery. Throughout his successful career as an art dealer, Glimcher had dabbled in the movie business before as a producer on such films as Gorillas in the Mist (1988) and The Good Mother (1988).
Glimcher was attracted to the subject matter of mambo music, of which he had been a big fan since his youth. When he heard that Oscar Hijuelos was writing a book about mambo, he wanted to read it right away, before it was even published. "I called Oscar," said Glimcher, "and I said, 'I understand you're writing this book on mambo. I'd love to read it.' He delivered it to me on Friday in a cardboard box that shirts come from in the laundry with ballpoint pen corrections. I read the manuscript that weekend. I bought the rights to it Monday morning." Hijuelos' book, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love went on to win the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in fiction.
From the beginning Glimcher had actors Antonio Banderas and Armand Assante in mind to play the Castillo brothers. Assante had been working steadily in Hollywood for years but had not yet broken out as a major star. Banderas was a Spanish movie star, best known for his work in the films of Pedro Almodvar, but largely unknown to American audiences at that time. Warner Bros., however, wanted Jeremy Irons to play Cesar and Ray Liotta to play Nestor. Irons and Liotta were hot off their major successes in the 1990 films Reversal of Fortune and Goodfellas respectively and the studio felt that they would appeal to a wider audience.
Glimcher fought hard for Banderas, who was looking to make an international breakthrough in his first English speaking role. "I was interested in him for this role from the beginning," said Glimcher. "I had seen all of his Spanish movies and thought he was an extraordinary talent." Glimcher arranged to meet with Banderas for the first time in London to discuss the possibility of his co-starring in The Mambo Kings. Despite Banderas' total lack of English skills at the time, Glimcher thought he would be perfect for the film. "(Antonio) was very responsive, incredibly charming," said Glimcher. "I think he can seduce any woman, man, cat, dog or bird in the world." Through a translator, Glimcher told Banderas to work on improving his English for a month and then come to Hollywood for a screen test.
Banderas wound up making a screen test opposite Jeremy Irons, which the executives at Warner Bros. loved. However, Glimcher thought Irons was the wrong choice to play Cesar. "Jeremy did a fantastic job and had an extraordinary accent (but) was not the character I was looking for," said Glimcher. He still believed that Armand Assante should play Cesar, and eventually the studio relented.
For the three main female roles in The Mambo Kings Glimcher cast Cathy Moriarty as Cesar's brassy love interest Lanna, Talisa Soto as Nestor's lost love Maria and Maruschka Detmers as Delores, the woman who tries to make Nestor forget Maria. "Cathy Moriarty I had been in love with since Raging Bull ," said Glimcher. "I kept thinking to myself, 'Lanna is Cathy Moriarty...' Our agents found her and she came in and there was just no question that she was the character. She's a woman of the fifties. Not emaciated. Luscious. Sexy. Welcoming and smart."
Talisa Soto was a model who was just beginning her acting career when she was cast in the small but important role of Maria in The Mambo Kings. "I cast her because of her extraordinary beauty," said Glimcher, "because I wanted her to be emblematic through the film as the face...that this young man Nestor Castillo couldn't get out of his mind."
Actress Annabella Sciorra was originally set to play Nestor's new love interest Delores. However, at the last minute she had to pull out due to a scheduling conflict. Maruschka Detmers, an actress who had made her mark in French films, stepped in to take over the role just two weeks prior to filming.
In an effort to bring some authenticity to the mambo world of the 1950s depicted in The Mambo Kings, Arne Glimcher hired legendary real-life musicians Tito Puente and Celia Cruz to appear in small roles. Puente appears as himself in a rousing musical sequence, and Cruz plays the dramatic role of Evalina, a nightclub owner. "I convinced (Cruz) that we would take it really easy and I'd go with her word for word if necessary," said Glimcher, "and I think that she became the soul of the movie, the fairy godmother of the movie."
In one of the film's most inspired casting choices, former heartthrob Desi Arnaz, Jr. portrays his father Desi Arnaz, Sr. in a startlingly realistic sequence that has the Castillo brothers appearing on an episode of the television show I Love Lucy. Glimcher knew from the beginning that Desi Arnaz, Jr. would be the perfect person to play his famous father. Arnaz, Jr. had been retired from the Hollywood scene for several years and was living in Nevada when Glimcher approached him about appearing in The Mambo Kings. "(Glimcher) said he'd seen a lot of people who could impersonate Ricky (Ricardo)," said Arnaz, Jr. in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, "but nobody who knew who Desi was." Arnaz, Jr. dyed his hair black for the role and wore an ID bracelet, ring and pin that had belonged to his father in order to feel closer to the part. "I wasn't trying to look exactly like him," he said. "It was more about getting his essence and mannerisms."
The cooperation of Arnaz and his sister Lucie were essential in re-creating the I Love Lucy show. "They were really very happy that their father was being treated in a very respectful way," said Glimcher. The set of the Ricardos' living room was re-created down to the last detail for The Mambo Kings while clever editing seamlessly intercut footage with Antonio Banderas, Armand Assante and Desi Arnaz, Jr. with actual footage from an old I Love Lucy episode.
Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas got along beautifully playing musical brothers. Both actors also did their own singing in the film. Assante, who already had some musical training, worked hard to master the drums so that he could hold his own in the scene in which his character plays a number with Tito Puente. Banderas also studied hard to mimic the correct posture and finger placement for his character's trumpet, but the actual playing was done by the great Cuban trumpet player Arturo Sandoval.
Reviews of The Mambo Kings were generally positive. Variety called it "an ambitious, old-fashioned Hollywood film that lovingly recreates the Latino ambience of its Pulitzer Prize-winning source material. With impeccable period sets and costumes and striking cinematography, (The Mambo Kings) beautifully evokes 1950s New York. Arne Glimcher...makes a strong directing debut." Time magazine said, "The film pays tribute to the unshakable ambitions of the next-to-last group of immigrants who embraced the capaciousness of the American promise. See The Mambo Kings -- attend to its music and its sensuous moves and try, just try, to keep from dancing out of the theater." Rolling Stone said, "The extravagantly sexy and witty Mambo Kings is a stunner; suffused with romantic longing, the film goes beyond spectacle to honor the achievements and dammed-up dreams of a culture long misunderstood by Hollywood...Assante and Banderas are sensational as the loving, warring brothers."
The phenomenal music in The Mambo Kings made its soundtrack a best seller, eventually going platinum. The haunting song "Beautiful Maria of My Soul" was nominated for an Academy Award.
Producers: Arne Glimcher, Arnon Milchan
Director: Arne Glimcher
Screenplay: Cynthia Cidre; Oscar Hijuelos (novel)
Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Art Direction: Steve Saklad
Music: Carlos Franzetti, Robert Kraft
Film Editing: Claire Simpson; Glenn Lazzaro (uncredited)
Cast: Armand Assante (Cesar Castillo), Antonio Banderas (Nestor Castillo), Cathy Moriarty (Lanna Lake), Maruschka Detmers (Delores Fuentes), Pablo Calogero (Ramon, The Mambo Kings Band), Scott Cohen (Bernardito, The Mambo Kings Band), Desi Arnaz, Jr. (Desi Arnaz, Sr.), Mario Grillo (Mario - The Mambo Kings Band), Ralph Irizarry (Pito, The Mambo Kings Band), Pete Macnamara (Johnny Bing, The Mambo Kings Band), Jimmy Medina (Manny, The Mambo Kings Band), Marcos Quintanilla (Willie, The Mambo Kings Band), Tito Puente (Himself).
by Andrea Passafiume