Sundance Film Festival

It was our thing, Our Latin Thing: An Interview with Leon Gast

By 29 November, 2011

We speak to New Jersey-born director Leon Gast about Our Latin Thing, a film documenting a Fania All-Stars concert and Latino life in Manhattan (New York) in 1971. The film was reissued earlier this year and is fast becoming known as THE definitive salsa documentary. In our opinion it is one of the finest music documentaries ever made, never mind just salsa.

We spoke to Leon – who also directed When We Were Kings – on the phone. He was in his house in Woodstock where he was working on his next film, a documentary about boxer Manny Pacquaio. We discussed how he got involved in film-making and tried to find out just what was so special about the Latin scene in New York at that time.

How did you become interested in film-making?

A great film was made in New Jersey [where I was living] in Hoboken called On The Waterfront with Marlon Brando. And almost everybody had a relative, a father, a good friend, that worked somehow on that film. And I became fascinated with film-making. I went to Columbia University for one year and took various courses in film-making. This was in 1957. The class that interested me was documentary film.

When were you introduced to Latin music?

My parents were into dancing. They would go on weekends up to the Concorde, in the Catskill mountains where most of the hotels and motels and nightclubs nearby had Latin music. The craze was cha-cha-cha. My parents used to listen to early Xavier Cugat, “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom, dah, dah, dah” and I loved it. But, there were no Latinos in my high school in Jersey City. The city was very much still segregated then and a couple of guys would go into a place called the Palladium. On Wednesday night there were dance contests. I went with them and watched some incredible dancers, became fascinated with the music. There were always great bands playing, not in Jersey City but in Newark I saw bands like La Playa Sextet. Then a few years later I went to see an act in the Village (New York) at a place called Village Gate and the opening act was Orquesta Harlow, Larry Harlow. They were fabulous, they knocked me out.

When did you get involved with the Latin scene in New York?

I was introduced to Larry Harlow and in the mid-60s, around 66 or 67, I started hanging around with him. I was living in the Village and then I moved up to 86th Street and that was the apartment I was in for 47 years. It was my introduction to the Latin culture because there were lots of Nuyoricans and Dominicans in that neighbourhood. It’s been gentrified since. That area, in 1968 or 69 had the highest crime rate. Now, you’re pretty lucky if you can get a studio apartment for $550k-600k.

So I became friendly with Larry who played all over the Metropolitan area, and he was the guy. He was so popular, especially among the younger Latinos, and especially the young women. If the Stones were in New York and the young Latinos, maybe from 15 or 16 to 40 years old had a chance to see Mick Jagger or Larry Harlow they would go to see Larry Harlow, he was that popular. Everybody loved him. He was doing great music. He had that big band. He was very influenced by Sonora Matancera and a couple of the other older Cuban bands. He had two trumpets, two trombones, two saxophones, even at one point he had four trumpets and four trombones, like Fania All-Stars.

Then I met Jerry Masucci and Johnny Pacheco, the founders of Fania. I had done photography work in the ad business and so I did a few album covers for Fania. The Joe Bataan Riot album cover with them climbing over a metal fence. And I did the first Fania All Stars cover Live At The Red Garter. That was 68. Three years later they wanted to do another show, and maybe film it. Larry and myself put it together. We convinced Jerry. Then he came up with the title. Our thing. Our Latin Thing. Nuestra Cosa.

Whose idea was it to use footage from the streets as well as the actual concert?

That was mine. But as much as style is concerned, it’s all very formulaic, music and a little bit of the culture. And none of it was shot in Spanish Harlem as I’ve read several times. It was all shot on the Lower East Side. Not a frame in Spanish Harlem.

What I did though that never got into it was that I wanted to take each one of the major players and do a little vignette with each of them for the song that they may have been featured on. I did one that made it in which was Ray Barretto selling ices, and a kid comes up – who was actually Cheo Feliciano’s son who asks him for the flavour. With Cheo Feliciano I did him shooting craps on East 11th or 12th street. I had Larry Harlow climbing out of a window and running, as if he was in somebody’s ground storey apartment when the husband shows up. I did Johnny [Pacheco] that we used as the pied piper where he’s walking along and the kids come out and like the pied piper he’s attracting all of them. Really corny.

Did you plan the shots on the street or did they just happen?

We were just walking around the streets shooting. There’s that scene with the guy singing with the lady who both look like they could have been high on something. They’re singing and they do a ditty, and then there’s a guy on the washboard. These were just people sitting on the street. It wasn’t set-up. Larry set-up the Santeria thing [the religious ceremony scene], that was Larry’s idea. He was really into Santeria. Then Ismael Miranda knew of this cockfighting, it was almost like a league that they held in the Bronx and Brooklyn. We watched the fight and then we had “Ponte Duro” coming in, and the guy says it was a good fight and the winner wins, and dah dah dah. I love that scene, it was one of my favourite scenes ever that one.

What was planned was Orquesta Harlow doing that song in the street. Then Pacheco came down, it was a Sunday. Pacheco came down and he did something with Miranda and we just got that flow, that shot of the fire escape with the camera panning down. It was just perfect, in tune with the music, and then Pacheco does an incredible flute solo and people were dancing.

Were these scenes things you’d experienced before?

I had never been to a cockfight before. It was right near to where Miranda lived. Those were things that fell into place in two days filming, maybe two and a half days, that’s all. One day on the streets, the rehearsal was the same day as the actual show at the Cheetah, and the show was at night. And it really is my firm belief that the band never sounded as good as it did that night, and I’ve listened to them and been to a lot of Fania shows.

Was this your first time directing a live concert? Did you have a very clear idea of how you were going to shoot?

Yeah, I directed it so I must have. There were five or six cameras and I shot sections of it that are in the film. The guys working on it were really good handheld cameramen, and that was when cameras were really heavy. Then we had a truck [for the sound]. It was 16-track recording. We overdubbed a little. Willie redid his trumpet solo. A few other things. That was it really.

Perhaps you can explain what it was like being in New York at that time. The film makes it appear a time that was full of so much energy…

It was there! The music was there always. That was the era of boomboxes and a lot of our Latino neighbours played the music loud, there were people dancing in the street. It was a time were there were lots of different neighbourhoods in Manhattan. There were enclaves of Irish people on the East Side, then the Lower East Side had the first immigrants from Eastern Europe, mainly Jewish. There was Latin music. There were big bands. We got lucky. Those were two days in the streets. We got all that stuff.

Where did the film screen when it was originall released back in the 70s?

It opened at a theatre called Cine One on Broadway between 37th and 46th. It had an unusually large turnout. It sold out. Then it was shown at Cine Two after the screening at Cine One ended. So it did very well at Broadway.

How was the reaction to the film when it come out?

The reaction was good when it came out. Variety gave it a great review. The Village Voice was okay. Crawdaddy, which was really the early Rolling Stone, gave it a great review. Q Magazine gave it a great review.

Well, we can’t wait to watch it on the big screen in London! Let’s hope it does as well second time around.

I hope so!

Our Latin Thing will be screening at a couple of venues in London in November and December. You can find details of those screenings here. You can also read our review of the film here.

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