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Movie Review: José Feliciano: Behind This Guitar


José Feliciano was gifted with a guitar at age nine, as a young adult he used that instrument, his voice and songwriting skills to launch a career.
He came before them…

Before Jimi Hendrix and Whitney Houston took creative license with “The Star-Spangled Banner” and before Marc Anthony and Bad Bunny sang salsa and reggaeton, José Monserrate Feliciano Garcia blazed a path. And now this nostalgic scrapbook of his life catalogues his trials and triumphs.

Born blind in 1945, he lived in poverty in Puerto Rico (no bathroom just a latrine), moved to the Bronx at age five, and shared an apartment with 12 siblings. Feliciano wanted a better life. Gifted with a guitar at age nine, as a young adult he used that instrument, his voice and songwriting skills to launch a career. His fusion of Latin, soul, jazz blues and rock blossomed over 55 years and earned him 45 Gold and Platinum records and nine Grammys.

Reinterpreting popular songs was a key part of Feliciano’s unique talent, which garnered mixed responses. Rock purists cried heresy when he jazzed up and slowed down The Doors’ #1 Billboard song “Light My Fire.” However, his vocals on that song won him a Grammy in 1968 for Contemporary-Pop Vocal Performance, Male. But nothing prepared him for the rage he encountered when he did the national anthem, his way.

At the beginning of Game 5 of the 1968 World Series, the Latino crooner sang the “The Star-Spangle Banner” before the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals played. Blending folk and jazz, he slowed the tempo down, sang his heart out and angered traditionalists. The outrage was swift and cruel. One disenchanted fan wrote: “What screwball gave permission to have the national anthem desecrated by singing it in the jazzy, hippy manner that it was sung?”

Feliciano was devastated by the response, but conversely it also made him famous. He poured his broken heart into his music and hit after hit came along with international acclaim. He built bridges between Latino culture and the rest of the world with Spanglish classics like “Feliz Navidad,” which introduced him and his Puerto Rican heritage to a wider audience.

With reverence and love, directors Helen Murphy and Frank Licari piece together Feliciano’s concerts, recordings, family life, marriages, challenges and breakthroughs. Photos, footage and newspaper clippings provide a record. Interviews with his brothers, wife and children offer insights into his personal journey. World-famous musicians like Carlos Santana, Gloria Estefan and Emilio Estefan explain why his musical achievements mattered—and they even executive produced this enlightening doc.

From the footage, viewers learn that Feliciano’s musical philosophy is quite simple: “Latin music with American stylings.” Also, he saw his impoverished life in P.R. differently than others might imagine: “The memories I have are happy in Puerto Rico because they were always filled with music.” Cinematographers Khoa Le and Egor Morozov elegantly capture the beauty of the Caribbean island, admiration from earnest interviewees and the singer’s essence. With the care of an artist and hands of a surgeon, editor Paul Jaigua melts scenes together (radio shows, TV appearances, live concerts) and cuts a 75-year-old story down to 92 succinct minutes.

Surprisingly, that devastating experience Feliciano endured during the national anthem scandal gave him a five-decade-long career. It also gave the Detroit Tigers some luck. View this meditative and well-deserved archive of José Monserrate Feliciano Garcia’s humble but storied life and you’ll find out exactly how his positive spirit greatly influenced others.

Now that this pioneer’s challenges and accomplishments have been duly recorded, those who follow in his steps can fully appreciate how he paved their way.

Score : 3 stars

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