The Mambo Kings Review

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The Castillo brothers arrive in New York with big ambitions and a burning passion for mambo. Their dancing antics wins them a spot on the I Love Lucy show, but their success is short-lived as the band falls apart and the brothers fall out.


Everybody mambo! The first 20 minutes or so in this tale of musician brothers verge on sensational, a colourful swirl of hot-blooded carryings on, conga duels and snake-hipped scenes so hot they fairly blister the screen. Unfortunately after such a promising start, first-time director Arne Glimcher can't keep his grip, and the screenplay unravels into turgid fraternal melodrama as the American Dream slips through the protagonists' fingers. Nevertheless, there are some pulse-racing moments.

Assante - excellent in his showy role - and Spanish star Banderas in his English-language debut are the Castillo brothers, sexy, macho Cesar and brooding, sensitive Nestor, who arrive in New York from Havana in 1952 with snappy duds and a suitcase of songs. At the time mambo was "the" ethnic sensation, hipper than cha-cha, with Bird recording with Machito, Getz snapping up Cuban musicians, etc. And indeed the musical scenes are delicious, from Cesar vaulting on stage with Tito Puente to drive a nightclub crowd into a frenzy, to the boys wowing Cuban TV superstar Desi Arnaz (played by Desi Jr.) to win a coveted spot on the I Love Lucy show. Along the way Cesar makes a play for his brother's girl with a dance floor seduction scene that is the steamiest routine since Swayze danced dirty.

Cesar's hormonal overdrive provides some of the best bits, like his ogling overtures to Cathy Moriarty's nightclub cigarette girl: "If she cooks like she walks, brother, I am gonna lick her plate!" The duo's moment in the sun proves even shorter than The Committments', though, and after early, entertaining montages of the band auditions, the Bar Mitzvahs and dive bars, the romances and the slinking dancing, we fall into tired scenes of the band falling apart and the brothers falling out. If you like Latino rhythms the soundtrack is terrific stuff courtesy of such talents as Tito Puente, Celia Cruz and Los Lobos. Falls short, but good enough to inspire a spot of mambo mania.

Falls short, but good enough to inspire a spot of mambo mania.