By ordinary standards, Tango Bar is barely a movie at all, more a compendium of great moments in the history of tango dancing.
But somehow this film blends a fictional story with its documentary aspects to create a highly entertaining movie; it was clearly an audience favorite at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival.
The fictional story takes place entirely in a tango bar in Buenos Aires, where a pianist (Raul Julia, from Kiss of the Spider Woman) awaits the return of his former accordionist partner (Ruben Juarez). They made a popular team as entertainers more than a decade ago. But during the political upheavals of recent Argentinian history, the accordionist left for safer pastures, while Julia stayed behind, with the other man’s wife (Valeria Lynch), a singer.
The film is made up of snippets from their old show, in which they tell the crowd the history of tango. For the movie audience, this lecture is illustrated with some sensational dancing by pairs and groups, choreographed and performed by some of the best talents in tango today.
It’s also illustrated with film clips of the tango, Hollywood-style. These delightful moments include familiar numbers from Astaire-Rogers and Gene Kelly, as well as rarer items. A glimpse of Rudolph Valentino throwing, literally, his partners around the dance floor is enough to explain his electric appeal.
The movie describes the tango craze in the early part of this century, when Europe and America discovered the sexy dance and brought it into the most civilized parlors. And there’s some witty explanation of the tango mystique, as the two “tango men” field questions from their nightclub audience.
When, in the end, the men are reunited and they sing a tango that reflects the new freedom in Argentina, it is a surprisingly emotional moment. Tango Bar appears not to have much of a story, then you realize it has been the story of tango all along.
First published in The Herald, June 1, 1989
SIFF success could get a movie a Seattle run in those days, for sure. I just looked at the only other review linked to IMDb, a piece from the Washington Post by Rita Kempley, and boy, she lays into it: “they are reprising their extremely tedious act before wildly appreciative, easily amused, glassy-eyed Stepford audiences….these Latin lovers are grouchos, not gauchos, and hold the salsa.” It’s also “Terribly directed by Puerto Rico’s Marcos Zurinaga.” Ouch. Ruben Juarez was a successful singer and player of the bandoneon (I probably hadn’t heard of that instrument at my tender age; accordion was pretty close). This is his only big-screen credit.