We recently watched ‘Cuba Loves Lovers’ (now available on Prime, originally released in 2015 as ‘Dancing For My Havana’) and I have some storytelling thoughts about that. Here is what I wrote in my Amazon review:
I am that person who sees all the dance movies, from recent nonsense like 'Honey' to back-in-the-day nonsense like 'Girls Just Want to Have Fun.' I watch all the dance-centric TV shows and am there for movie musicals of pretty much any description. So when I found out about 'Cuba Loves Lovers' I was very happy we have Prime so I could watch it.
The movie is well made, beautifully photographed on location in Cuba. Good performances and excellent dancing throughout. Slight problems with the sound, and the subtitles had some typos, but nothing that made the film difficult to watch or understand. We thought the English title did a disservice to the film because it creates an expectation that this is a happy love story sort of dance movie, a la 'Dirty Dancing' (and I do call that a happy love story, even though it has a happy-for-now ending and not a happy-ever-after). In this case, the original Spanish title ('Dancing for my Havana') is more accurate.
'Cuba Loves Lovers' is not actually a love story. It has a love triangle, in which the conflicts are realistic and well-played, but this is more a man-choosing-between-two-dreams story. We turned around and re-watched 'Dance With Me' for the happy ending we wanted. Recommended for the beautiful setting and the dancing.
Now. On to the dissection.
First let me emphasize that there is nothing wrong with ‘Cuba Loves Lovers’ except for the title. It’s a good movie. It is not however the movie I wanted, so that is what this is about, and it’s going to get wordy up in here because the problem was storytelling and that’s what this blog is about.
There are three separate story arcs in ‘Cuba Loves Lovers,’ and they cannot resolve to a conclusion that satisfies all three. The protagonist is a young man, a professional dancer named Daniel, who wants to be a choreographer AND wants to get out of Cuba. When you see the conditions there, you sympathize with that. But you also immediately think this guy is a jerk because the script shows him as rude, combative, uncooperative, and a user of women. His story is the strongest in terms of screen time and script emphasis. It is a problem when your protagonist is not likable. (The actor - Sandy Marquetti - is beautiful, but that’s not always enough either.) I, for one, didn’t especially think Daniel deserved to achieve his dream. I know a lot of dancers, and the really successful ones are the ones who know how to frickin’ collaborate.
The secondary story arc is a love triangle between Daniel, a Spanish woman named Rosa (who is in Cuba following - we learn this a little too late in the film - a disastrous love affair. She has come there to dance and possibly discover her roots. There is not enough character development for Rosa given her importance to all three story arcs and the lovely actress playing her, Oona Chaplin) and a Cuban woman named Yadira (played by Nayara Nunez). The back story is that Daniel and Yadira were in love back in the day. Then she left him - and left Cuba - for a rich older man. We learn - again a little too late in the story - that she actually married this rich older man and moved to Switzerland. She left him because she couldn’t stand being away from Cuba, AND because she was still in love with Daniel.
So the storytelling problems with this arc are that 1) Daniel has some real hostility toward Yadira; 2) Yadira is also not very likable as written, and the reactions of everyone around her are problematic (though probably realistic: everyone blames her for leaving at the same time they understand why she left, because there is no such thing as “success” in this environment); 3) there is no indication until quite late in the story that Rosa and Daniel actually have a relationship that goes beyond trying to create a new dance company. Rosa’s motivation is very unclear. She doesn’t even like him at first, and it’s easy to see why. A hate you/love you romance is a complicated thing and it needs to not be mixed into two other stories.
Rosa’s part in all this would have worked better for me if her back story had been explicated, and if her relationship with Daniel had been only about dancing. He’s giving her a platform to dance, he’s teaching her, and that would have been enough for me. It would also have made her conflicted feelings about bringing Yadira into the company not about Daniel. Because Yadira is a better-trained dancer, with maybe more natural talent and charisma. That is quite enough to be jealous of. Rosa knows they need Yadira, but we all know how it feels to watch someone else be the star.
The third story arc has to do with putting the dance company together. Given the original Spanish title, and given the tremendous dance talent they had to work with here, I would have jettisoned most of the Daniel-gets-out-of-Cuba arc and nearly all of the love-triangle arc, and focused the film here. I was dying to know a) how the heck he found all these people (the company goes from a half-dozen friends of friends to 18 or so, of whom some were stellar professionals); b) how the heck they all made time to rehearse with him given that most of them were clearly working other jobs (as Daniel was himself); c) how the choreography was made (there is ONE SCENE about this); d) why they heck they are all willing to work with Daniel given that he is a notorious dick; e) who the heck all these people were. The performers were good but only two were given any personality as characters.
The arc I found most engaging, in other words, is the arc that got the least attention. And it is totally unfinished. The movie’s conclusion is all about the Daniel-Yadira relationship, with the inevitable love scene followed by him writing her a letter about how he forgives her and oh by the way he’s leaving her because this one performance got seen by someone who wants him to come to Rome. He abandons, in short, Yadira AND Rosa AND the entire dance company.
Now, if this movie had set Daniel up as a person who we get really invested in, someone we want to succeed; and if he had then been straight with all his people about what was going on; and if he had then not been such a stereotypical dickhead about the two women in his life, maybe that conclusion could have been satisfying. I frankly was hoping his plane to Rome would crash.
There is a kind of coda to the film, which shows Yadira dancing, and apparently happy, in a studio with what could be a new partner or more likely a student. On our second round of post-viewing discussion, we both thought this scene might have been shot and added after the fact in order to give the film a little uplift (and possibly to justify the original title). Yadira has come back to Cuba for Daniel, but also for dance. The coda lets us see that at least she still has dance, and that dance makes her happy (probably happier than Daniel would have). And the problem with this coda is that the whole movie failed to establish why we should want her to be happy. Sigh. (Way they could have repaired this: show Yadira dancing in the studio WITH THE COMPANY, including Rosa. The whole building-a-company story could have also been a female-empowerment story. Don’t get me started.)
In my Amazon review I mentioned ‘Dirty Dancing.’ That movie is a classic for a reason. Patrick Swayze’s character Johnny has some of the same characteristics as Daniel in ‘Cuba Loves Lovers:’ he’s gifted, he’s got a chip on his shoulder, and he’s an alpha. Unlike Daniel, however, Johnny is the alpha who looks out for his pack. He is also not incapable of recognizing when he’s being a jerk and of making amends for same. We want Johnny and Baby to work out because they BOTH behave like they’re IN LOVE.
Even more to the point: ‘Dirty Dancing’ would have been satisfying in a melancholy way if it had concluded with “I’ll never be sorry.” It is beloved because Johnny comes back for that climax, giving Baby her big starring moment and pulling all those people together in a beautiful mythic moment of integrated joy.
YOU DO NOT END A DANCE MOVIE WITHOUT A BIG NUMBER, if you ask me. And personally, if you’re making a dance movie and you think it’s a romance, that big closing number needs to resolve the romance in a satisfying way, which for most people is a happy-for-now AT THE VERY LEAST. Your protagonist leaving - leaving not only the woman who helped him get the new job but also the woman he’s been making scenes about all the way through the movie and on top of that the group of people who helped him create the art that is springboarding him into his dream - is not a happy-for-now.
Now, I will be the first to admit that a story can get away from a person. I am still picking my way through the two novels and one novella that I had to write in order to fully conceive the screenplay that underlies a story arc in all three of those things. One of those novels was 90% written when I had to pull out 30% of it because that 30% needed to be the separate novella (a love story; the novel was about making the movie, and that love story just got in the way (though there is still a love story in the novel, I can’t help myself)). The other novel is 100% written and I’m about to pull out at least 10% of it because that 10% is about making the movie, and that story is better told in the other novel, plus it gets in the way of the main story of that second novel.
Well, that is probably enough about all that for now. I do think there are not enough dance movies. I think a dance can be a great metaphor for a relationship, or a great way to express a relationship; and stories about dancing are of necessity stories about relationships. ‘Cuba Loves Lovers’ is - again - a good movie, and I’m glad we saw it. I’m also really glad we had ‘Dance With Me’ in the jukebox.