The Street Poetry of Regressive Loops (Or Vice Versa)
By Marc Weidenbaum
Kip Hanrahan's soundtrack to the film Piñero keeps it real-fake-real-fake-real
The trumpeter in a Kip Hanrahan recording does double duty -- playing the trumpet, certainly, but also playing a role.
The role is that of a trumpeter in the sonic drama that is a Kip Hanrahan production. Hanrahan may be better known for writing scenes than he is for writing instrumental charts -- he lays down plots, not beats. And those plots themselves are less about story than they are about feeling; Hanrahan is a maestro of atmosphere.
It's a demanding role, being Hanrahan's trumpeter, a demanding charge -- perhaps even more so than playing the instrument in the first place. The figure of the jazz musician is a romantic one in culture; it's almost as rich with accrued meaning as the figure of the poet. Living up to that image is the trumpeter's responsibility.
The role is all the more demanding because it isn't the lead: there are, arguably, few if any lead roles in Hanrahan's aural ensemble dramas. The trumpeter in Hanrahan's band -- and this is true of all members of that band -- must have the ego of an individual character, and yet the ability to blend into the crowd.
And if ever that were the case, it is in Hanrahan's dynamic large-band score to the 2001 film Piñero. For in any film, Piñero being no exception, the music is itself part of a broader ensemble -- a multi-media one -- and in most cases, its role is subsidiary to the visuals and to the narrative.
What's fascinating about Piñero, which was directed by Leon Ichaso, is how the film's subject matter has rich parallels to Hanrahan's own work, specifically in regard to matters of constructed reality -- parallels that the music can't help bring to the fore.
Piñero (with Benjamin Bratt in the title role) tells the stylized and dramatized story of a real person, the late Miguel Piñero, a renowned street poet who helped found the influential Nuyorican Poets Cafe in Manhattan during the 1970's and whose work was heard from the cells of the notorious prison Sing Sing to the stages of Manhattan's fabled theaters. Miguel Piñero won several Tony Awards, Broadway's highest honor, and he was a not infrequent presence on television and in film. And then, after decades of struggle with substance abuse, he died in 1988 at the age of 41.
The film's director, Leon Ichaso, like Piñero, worked on Miami Vice, and he later worked with Bratt on the short-lived TV series The Cleaner, in which Bratt played a reformed addict whose speech patterns clearly owed much to the banter of urban raconteur Piñero (there are echoes, as well, in Bratt's recent film La Mission, from 2009, in which he plays the sort of domineering parent from which a sensitive child like Piñero would have tried to escape).Ichaso structures Piñero as a series of nested and fragmented flashbacks, some in black and white, some in color, some shot in a documentary style (all handheld nonchalance and chance incidence), others purposefully staged, with the stark, unadorned look of an episode of The Twilight Zone or Playhouse 90. When Bratt is playing Piñero playing a character in a drama, the layering reaches its self-conscious zenith, as in this fictionalized shot from the filming of the 1982 movie Fort Apache the Bronx:
Hanrahan's music likewise mixes it up formally. The score cue "Short Eyes Prison Rehearsal Boogaloo" could be any solid salsa band on a slow summer night, whereas "Surgar's Theme" is pure artifice, the slurry horns heard far behind double-time percussion; those horns seem to have less to do with traditionally recorded sound and more to do with how in film light, motion and perspective can shuffle something into the background yet keep it purposefully visible. The bass throb in "Parole Hearing" is a sound one would never hear from a Latin jazz ensemble; reminiscent of Bill Laswell at his most mythic, it simulates blood-in-the-ear simmering rage.The music in the film often seems to be playing nothing so much as the sound in Piñero's head, the unheard soundtrack of daily mental life projected loud on-screen. There's one sequence about 45 minutes into Piñero when a batch of musicians ply their trade while he rambles endlessly on a New York City rooftop. What is this scene: a staged performance, a staged staging of a performance, a drug-fueled fantasy, a self-serving memory? Perhaps all of those, and more.
A movie about a semi-improvisatory poet, a freestyler, seems perfectly matched to Hanrahan's creative mode: it takes a formal approach to accomplish an improvised vibe, all the while feeding the audience's romantic imagination. There's a full-length album collecting Hanrahan's Piñero cues, and it includes Bratt's spoken-word performances. As such, it can sit on a shelf comfortably alongside Hanrahan's work with the poets Ishmael Reed, Piri Thomas, and Paul Haines (the score has almost three dozen musicians, among them Peter Scherer on keyboards, Jerry Gonzalez on trumpet and quinto, and Leo Nocentelli on guitar, while Hanrahan is credited with percussion).
This tension between real and fake is inherent in Piñero's own story. At one point in the film, he screams, "This is street reality. This is where we shout it out." This coming from a man who took acting gigs in Fort Apache and Miami Vice to portray some compressed, commercial vision of street reality (John Leguizamo, who also came up at the Nuyorican, and whose persona blends street experience and an actor's conceit, albeit to comedic effect, has said, tellingly, that he had to "study hard to be real").
There's a moment about an hour into Piñero that speaks with particular clarity to the issue of romanticism at the heart of Miguel Piñero's life and work, and therefore to the heart of the film and to Hanrahan's contribution. Piñero travels from New York to Puerto Rico, the land where he was born and the land that he has subsequently romanticized into a career. The experience doesn't go well -- at the end of his theatrical spiel, there is virtually no applause, not even polite applause -- and Piñero likens the reception his poetry has just received to a situation during which he once, long ago, had performed for the Sing Sing parole board. A member of the audience critiques him for harboring "some kind of nostalgic notion of what we really are." They recognize that Piñero's Puerto Rico isn't a real place, but an artistic fantasy.
Piñero the man takes offense, but Piñero the film, which is obsessed with the narcotic that we call atmosphere, embraces the epithet -- just as throughout his career Hanrahan has.
The film's official site
American Clave's MySpace
Marc Weidenbaum founded the ambient/electonic music site Disquiet.com in 1996. He has written for Nature, Down Beat, Pulse!, NewMusicBox.org, and numerous other publications.
See the rest of the Kip Hanrahan tribute
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