Fast and anxious, yet somehow mournful, bachata has been the music of the Dominican underbelly for decades, but only recently has the guitar-driven merengue offshoot emerged as a popular phenomenon. From patio-party entertainment to the scorned sound of brothel parlors and a New York nightclub sensation, the art form has had a roller-coaster relationship with its native country.
Santo Domingo Blues reveals the edgy style's rocky history through interviews with its practitioners. The star is foremost bachatero Luis Vargas, whose story mirrors that of the music itself. Just as the impoverished musician felt disenfranchised by Dominican society, so was his rough-hewn repertoire dismissed by the country's upper classes as lewd and crude. Much like blues, jazz, hip-hop and any number of folk musics, bachata was an underground sound until the '60s, inspired by the everyday concerns of the poor and downtrodden. Only after drifting to New York, where Dominican immigrants can afford to pay for live entertainment, do Vargas and his music see economic success.
The best parts of this rags-to-riches story come in live performance footage that captures the raw power the music has over its listeners. But much of the movie is filled up by one-sided harping on the director's broad message: that the Dominican elite pooh-poohed one of its country's cultural treasures. Time spent repeating this notion may have been better spent on opposing views. Only one detractor appears, complaining that bachata is about "jealousy, gossip and sobbing." Vargas's answer? "That's what life is about."—Cristina Black