Carlos Review | The Hit Factory

by Andrew Parker

While it certainly plays up to the legendary status of its subject, Rudy Valdez’s biographical documentary Carlos still earns a lot of respect simply because of who the film is about. A look at the life and almost six decade career of guitar legend Carlos Santana, Valdez’s work feels like it’s basically offering their subject a chance to deliver a second autobiography of sorts. Those wanting something a little deeper and further reaching won’t find much here, but Carlos is steered by a wise and masterful storyteller who’s willing to share the experiences and lessons they’ve found along the way.

Raised by a strong willed mother and a violin playing father who was a rolling stone, Carlos Santana got his start playing alongside his dad in mariachi bands in and around the Tijuana area. A move to San Francisco would introduce him to his love for the guitar and an entirely different style of music that he would mold into his own unique image over time. Santana would become a critically acclaimed, best selling musical artist who marched to his own beat, often playing whatever he wanted to do instead of constantly giving the record label what they wanted. The composer of such hits as “Oye Como Va,” “Black Magic Woman,” and “Jingo” would be a huge presence throughout the seventies and early eighties, and Santana would experience his biggest commercial successes with a multiplatinum, multi-Grammy winning comeback album at the turn of the century, further ensuring his lasting legacy on rock, pop, folk, and world music.

As a film, Carlos is very standard biopic stuff. Although the story of Carlos Santana’s career draws on a rich cultural background and started at a fascinating point in musical history, those looking for some kind of deeper meaning will be left disappointed. There are some well told anecdotes throughout Carlos – perhaps the most well known being his legendary, drug fuelled performance at the original Woodstock – but it all comes across like a famous person playing the hits. There’s not much here to be said about Santana’s influence on modern artists, what he meant to Latinex culture, or even all that much about his enduring legacy. Carlos shows the path to success, adds a couple of moments of drama, and keeps moving on without much context or outside perspective. Even when things get a little dark for Santana (especially a personal revelation towards the end that not many people know), it’s handled swiftly before pushing forward. Carlos establishes and maintains iconography, but doesn’t do much else.

But Santana himself is quite invested and willing to go along with Valdez. The most prominent and prolific interview subject Valdez has unlimited access to is the man himself, and to a certain extent, that’s all the director needs for Carlos to succeed. In archival footage from his younger days (which includes some intimate rehearsal footage that fascinates), Santana shows a wiseness beyond his years. In the modern era, Santana recounts stories in great detail and with a healthy dose of hindsight and spirituality. The modern moments are relayed by a man who has told these stories hundreds of times before, but is more than willing to share them a few hundred more. Carlos Santana comes across as both an icon and a teacher as he speaks, and while Valdez’s documentary doesn’t go beyond a surface level depiction of fame, it can be quite a joy to simply watch his subject holding court for an audience of appreciative listeners.

Carlos opens in select Canadian theatres on Friday, September 29, 2023.

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