Film About Tito Puente to Air on PBS

Tito Puente image 0
Jack Vartoogian

Tito Puente

In conjunction with Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 through October 15), PBS will air a series of amazing documentaries-including one about Tito Puente and another about Celia Cruz. The series is called VOCES and it was curated by Latin Public Broadcasting. The actor Edward James Olmos will introduce each week’s program. In a press release received this week, Olmos said, “Our Latino culture is deeply woven into the fabric of American life — one doesn’t exist without the other. These Latino stories presented in this new season of VOCES — Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Chilean, and Peruvian stories — are above all American stories and VOCES is the only series devoted to bringing these terrific films to a national audience.”

The film, Tito Puente – The King of Latin Music, premieres on Sunday, October 4 on public television stations. That documentary was produced and directed by George Rivera, a 25-year veteran of network television and public broadcasting. Rivera told JT that he grew up immersed in Puente’s music and knew the musician professionally, but the idea for doing the movie came from the subject himself. “For many years, people would ask Tito if they could do a documentary about him, and he would always turn them down. Meanwhile I had done a lot of broadcasts of concerts of Latin music artists, including Chucho Valdes. And eventually, Tito let it be known that he wanted me to do something on him.”

The timing was both fortuitous and tragic. “We started the project about one year before he died. We had come up with a structure for the film along with a shooting schedule that matched his performing schedule. We were going to start filming him in New York City at a celebration of his birthday and then we were going to follow him on his tour around the world. And then end up with a performance at Carnegie Hall. But two months into filming, he was flown back home and died shortly thereafter.” In the end Rivera and his production company had plenty of footage if a different narrative arc. The film originally was made for NBC, but has since been recut for public broadcasting

We asked Rivera, a lifelong fan of Puente, what he learned about the artist from the filming. He said, “I was most impressed, if not really surprised, just how great a musician and arranger he was. I saw him come into the New York Philharmonic and the musicians all stood up. These most-disciplined of musicians were truly in awe of him. People have a different public view of Tito, but when he came into a room full of his fellow musicians, he commanded respect-as a musician, as a composer and as an arranger. To see that firsthand time after time was very impressive.” In the course of the film, Puente’s family, friends and colleagues all pay homage-Bill Cosby, Marc Anthony, Armand Assante, Geraldo Rivera, Jimmy Smits, Paquito D’Rivera and many more. The King is gone, but he’s not forgotten.

Another music-related film, Celia The Queen, a documentary about Celia Cruz produced by Joe Cardona, already aired earlier this month.

In addition to the public television broadcast, the eight VOCES films will be available for online viewing on their broadcast premiere dates on the VOCES website.