Latin music is spicy, exuberant, boisterous, exciting—words that unfortunately do not describe “The Latin Explosion: A New America,” a mildly diverting but essentially bland and superficial look at the history of Latin Americans’ influence on popular music. Though produced for HBO, “The Latin Explosion” often feels more like something that would air on E!, a breezy hour-long jaunt through six decades of popular culture packed with celebrities recounting their greatest successes. This is history as written strictly by the winners, a story of social progress measured by the Billboard charts.
“The Latin Explosion” is really little more than a series of mini celebrity profiles arranged in semi-chronological order and glued together with some high-altitude historical voice-over read by John Leguizamo. We get blocks on many of the biggest names in Latin entertainment—Rita Moreno, Jose Feliciano, Gloria Estefan, Selena, Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, Selena, Pitbull—each of which is interesting enough, but together they don’t really add up to much. Directors Matthew O’Neill and Jon Alpert hit the highlights without delving deeply into any one subject, providing a superficial overview of Latin music’s often uneasy relationship to the mainstream.
Certain themes emerge from these interviews. The film suggests that many first-generation Latinos were not particularly aware of their own cultural identity, but later generations, who looked up to these performers, found their own identities through these artists. As the decades pass, Latin performers become more and more confident in their own identities and feel less and less pressure to completely assimilate. However, “The Latin Explosion” largely effaces any wider cultural and political struggle and, by solely highlighting successes, suggests that the many Latin artists who either refused to cross over or never gained popular success are not part of the story. Only the winners matter.
“The Latin Explosion” was executive produced by Tommy Mottola, and his presence looms over the project. Mottola played a pivotal role in the careers of Gloria Estefan, Ricky Martin, Shakira, Marc Anthony, and Jennifer Lopez—all of whom provided interviews for the film—and while the film is not so crass as to include any direct mention of Mottola or his importance in bringing Latin artists to a wider audience, it does feel like a crypto-vanity project, an opportunity to collect together Mottola’s biggest successes in order to highlight the cultural significance of that success.
Ultimately, “The Latin Explosion” is less about Latin music per se than about the mainstreaming of Latino culture and the role music has played in that process. From this point of view, only success matters, and even Pitbull’s role as a pitchman for Bud Light can be played as a beacon of cultural progress. Providing a true understanding of the wide array of genres that make up “Latin music” or highlighting culturally significant but financially unsuccessful artists, on the other hand, become less important. For “The Latin Explosion,” these are mere distractions from the narrative of perpetual mainstream advancement.
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