Rubén Blades is Not My Name
(Panama/Colombia, 84 min.)
Dir. Abner Benaim
Canadian audiences might recognize Rubén Blades as one of those great character actors they’ve seen in a dozen things but would never call famous. There’s a lot more to Blades, however, than his acting credits in the TV series Fear the Walking Dead, Robert Rodriguez’s exhilarating Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and Ridley Scott’s epic bomb The Counsellor, just to name a few. Audiences might know his prolific work in music, depending on the medium in which they discovered him, but from a film buff’s perspective, it turns out Blades is a lot more accomplished than his filmography on IMDb suggests.
Audiences can learn more about Blades in the celebratory documentary Rubén Blades is Not My Name. The film, which is the Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film from Blades’ native Panama, doesn’t break any new ground in the world of awkwardly shot celebrity profiles, but it certainly gives a flattering portrait of the star’s many achievements. Blades explains to director Abner Benaim that he wants the film to be his testament, something to leave behind in this world if, like Prince, he exits far too early. Even without this confession, the doc might still feel a bit soft and self-serving as it follows Blades from day to day as people say nice things about him. It’s nevertheless an amiable look at the star.
The doc mostly focuses on the significance of Blades’ career in music. If he’s a B-level actor in Hollywood, he’s an A+ performer back home in Panama. The doc breezes through his discography as he takes Benaim through his greatest hits while various talking heads, including Sting and Paul Simon, provide additional insight on his significance and musicality. Blades’ peers from the Latin music lend some context to his music and highlight how his songs might simply sound like sexy tango music to an untrained or foreign ear, but injected political messages and hymns to the working class within the conventions of popular music.
There’s also some airtime for Blades’ impressive political convictions and ambitions, most notably a run for president in 1994. (He placed third in the votes.) Some conversations draw out his womanizing and there’s a late bit with an illegitimate son who surfaces after thirty years. (And probably should have been offered a second take on his very awkward, nervous interview.) Everything turns out fine for the family and Blades’ career. The doc gives the man his due while anticipating lots more in the years to come.
Rubén Blades is Not My Name screens in Toronto at aluCine Latin Film + Media Festival on Oct. 6.