Robert Mugge’s portrait of actor, writer, attorney, activist and Grammy Award winning world music artist Ruben Blades, The Return Of Rubén Blades, is coming to Blu-ray and digital formats next week, on July 22nd from MVD Entertainment.
Between 1982 and 1984, music filmmaker Robert Mugge produced two feature length music docs for the UK’s brand-new fourth TV network, appropriately named Channel 4 Television. Those two films were BLACK WAX with Gil Scott-Heron, now newly re-released on DVD and Blu-ray by MVD Visual, and GOSPEL ACCORDING TO AL GREEN. After both were completed, Andy Park, Channel 4’s Commissioning Editor for Music who had funded both films, announced he would soon be leaving the channel. Mugge quickly realized, if he wanted Park to commission another film from him, he would need to act fast.
Therefore, in short order, Mugge proposed a film about the staging of Stephen Sondheim’s then forthcoming musical Sunday in the Park with George. But before shooting could begin, the composer grew fearful that cameras could aggravate the stresses of an already challenging collaboration. So, sadly, that proposal was scrubbed.
Next up was a possible portrait of P-Funk mastermind George Clinton. But that proposal, too, was abandoned when the artist’s own management noted his tendency not to show up when and where expected. Imagining what could happen to their modest budget if they booked crew, equipment, and supplies for a particular time and place only to have their subject fail to show, Mugge and Park soon abandoned that project as well.
Finally, in early 1985, Mugge proposed, and Park approved, a portrait of Panamanian-American singer, songwriter, musician, activist, essayist, lawyer, and politician Ruben Blades, who could rightly have been named “The Most Interesting Man in the World” decades before the tongue-in-cheek Dos Equis commercials dubbed actor Jonathan Goldsmith as such. At the time, Blades was the darling of American rock critics thanks to release of the 1984 Elektra album Buscando América, Blades’ most successful attempt yet at “crossing over” into mainstream Anglo acceptance, even as his longtime Latin fans stayed with him. His previous albums on salsa label Fania Records, with and without Nuyorican musician and bandleader Willie Colón, had made him a household name among Spanish-speaking salsa fans worldwide. But Blades was looking for far more, both musically and otherwise, and he seemed on the verge of becoming a multi-hyphenated, bilingual superstar.
The release of Buscando América, with its intricate Latin dance rhythms, its rocklike intensity, and its poetic, Spanish-language reflections on the often turbulent relationship between the U.S. and Latin America, showed Blades to be a major cultural force. But what made him so much more “interesting” as a film subject was that, simultaneously, he was starring in a highly autobiographical independent film titled CROSSOVER DREAMS which he himself had co-written, was earning a Master of Laws degree (LL.M.) in International Law from Harvard Law School, was publishing political essays in both Spanish and English, was splitting his time between the U.S. and his native Panama in anticipation of future political ambitions, was reading scripts for additional acting roles in the hope of improving the image of Latinos in Hollywood films and TV series, was touring internationally with his superb band, and was planning ever new material he hoped would further dissolve barriers between the English-language and Spanish-language music industries. As a documentary filmmaker seeking to capture the life and career of Rubén Blades on film, Mugge saw his own biggest challenge as simply keeping up with this seemingly tireless potential subject.
Happily, Blades, Mugge, and Park did come to terms, after which Mugge and his crew spent the spring and summer of 1985 shooting the following: a concert by Blades and his band Seis del Solar at New York City club S.O.B.’s (Sounds of Brazil); an interview with Blades at his New York City apartment; a conversation between Blades and author Pete Hamill in a New York City park; Blades’ graduation from Harvard Law School (including conversations with his mother and his dean); a Spanish-language recording session in Los Angeles featuring Blades and guest vocalist Linda Ronstadt; a joint interview with Blades and Ronstadt (who was then contemplating recording her own albums of Mexican songs she learned at home as a child); and a trip by Blades to his hometown of Panama City. In Panama, Blades was filmed on the balcony of his new high-rise apartment overseeing his city’s changing landscape, in front of the bank where he once worked as an attorney,
joining his father for a visit to the neighborhood where he grew up, in a courtyard discussing his intention to run for president of Panama one day, and walking along the Panama Canal discussing the sometimes tense relations between his native and adopted countries.
In the three decades since this film was made, Blades has accomplished much of what he set out to do, including (1) becoming a respected actor in Hollywood and independent films and television series; (2) continuing to serve as an effective political essayist and activist; and (3) continuing to record and perform powerful world music with both Spanish and English lyrics, and winning eight Grammy Awards and five Latin Grammy Awards along the way. Among his other awards and honors are a 2005 honorary degree from the Berklee College of Music and a 2011 Harry Chapin Humanitarian Award presented by ASCAP and partner WhyHunger for his international charity work. Just a few of the many films and TV programs in which he has starred or appeared are THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR, MO’ BETTER BLUES, THE TWO JAKES, PREDITOR 2, THE JOSEPHINE BAKER STORY, CRAZY FROM THE HEART, THE SUPER, X-FILES, CRADLE WILL ROCK, COLOR OF NIGHT, ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO, and FEAR THE WALKING DEAD. In 1997, Blades also headed the cast of The Capeman, Paul Simon’s first Broadway musical. Although his run for the Panamanian presidency in 1994 was unsuccessful, he served as Panama’s minister of tourism from 2004 through 2009 and, reportedly, is considering another run for the presidency in 2019.