At a certain point in the 1980s, there was no bigger movie star than Matt Dillon. Exploding into the cultural stratosphere with a trio of popular S.E. Hinton film adaptations (Tex, The Outsiders, Rumble Fish), the young actor transitioned from heartthrob to dynamic leading man in the space of a decade. Roles in Gus Van Sant’s masterful Drugstore Cowboy, Cameron Crowe’s Singles, and Tim Hunter’s The Saint of Fort Washington followed, each one wildly different from the other.
Thirty years later, Dillon finds himself at the Telluride Film Festival as the director of the breezy, illuminating documentary El Gran Fellove, which tells the story of Francisco Fellove Valdés, the underappreciated Cuban scat singer and showman. The film also highlights the “Feeling” Movement that came out of Cuba in the 1940s, a jazz-inspired musical shift of which Fellove was essential. The musician––like many Cuban artists––would soon move to Mexico, where he found an abundance of success.
Dillon took some time to speak to us about El Gran Fellove, his lifelong love of all kinds of music, and his first film, the underrated City of Ghosts.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
The Film Stage: Tell me about your love for Latin music. You mention it in the doc in the context of New York City and all of that, but I’d love to know a little bit more. Was there a specific moment where that kind of music hit for you?
Matt Dillon: You know, it’s funny. I didn’t really plan on putting myself in the film. I was like, “I wanna do this film because this is what I love but I’m not really interested in making it about me.” But it would come up periodically in the process and people would be like, “You gotta be in it, you gotta do it” and I was very reluctant. And then I embraced it and said, “Okay, it’s organic, it’s my story to tell. It’s Fellove’s story, it’s [music producer] Joey [Altruda]’s story but it’s my story to tell.” One of the things that came up a lot was like, “We need to know why you––some gringo guy from the suburbs of New York, Irish––why Latin music for you?” And it’s not something that’s easy to put into words. It’s sort of like explaining why you like vanilla ice cream or why you like the color green.. because it is a feeling. That’s what we came up with. In the end, for me, it really is something that you just feel. I don’t know about you and if you collect records or CDs or if you ever did, but I have great friends of mine––brilliant, creative friends––that are smart, dynamic human beings that have never bought one record in their life! I don’t understand it. But they might not understand why I have always bought records my entire life––why I’ve always been into music. It’s really that simple. It’s almost like it’s a path that you get chosen to be on. I will say this, there is a link that I would like to go back to. It goes back to my childhood as a kid, listening to my father’s old Irish folk records on a broken-down Gramophone listening to the words and loving the music and the storytelling and all of it. And so I always have this acceptance and eclectic taste in music. I’ve loved music from all spectrums.
And it helps [in the doc] that you are the connective tissue of the story. Now, one of the biggest elements in the movie is the archival footage, which is incredible. It often feels that archive footage is underappreciated in documentary filmmaking. Talk to me a little bit about that process because it’s so crucial to moments where you are referencing lesser-known musicians in some cases and you have clips of them to go along with it. How does that happen? How do you find all of those things?
Perseverance, my friend. [Laughs.] That’s what it was. There are professional archivists, people who are really good at tracking down archival material and but it’s really hard in Mexico and in Cuba. For us it took a while to get some of that stuff and especially Fellove. I mean you can go online and there’s very little [about Fellove].
Yeah, I went online there’s not a lot.
Nothing, there’s nothing! What I discovered––which was a real revelation to me––when I went down there and unfortunately didn’t get to see [Fellove] because he had died. I had went down to continue the movie, with no intention of filming [Fellove] because I knew of his health, and I met his manager. She had become his manager after I had met him during the record [in 1999]. And she said, “Matt you have to come to my house” and we went up into her attic where she had boxes of his costumes, his outfits, his songs, his sheet music that he had written and letters dating back to his mother, when he had first left Cuba. And letters to his siblings in Cuba when they were struggling, talking about ‘I’m going to send you two pairs of socks and a pair of pants and a radio.” You know, like, it was a big deal because they were struggling so much over there. And the thing that really touched me was all the things that he had spoken about I could start to put together in those pictures. José Antonio Méndez, his dear friend, the one who brought him there, that always touched me when he spoke about him. But I had no reference to them [as friends]. I was able to find pictures of them together in Cuba and in Mexico. Not a lot, but enough. It helped me put it together. There were things where I saw old interviews with José Antonio Méndez in Cuba where he was mentioning Fellove and about how Fellove had inspired a lyric that he had written, you know? I tried to build a sequence out of that but in the end it was futile. The archival [process] serves you in so many ways even if you don’t end up using [all of the material] in the film. With a story like this it helps you conceptualize the whole thing.
Yeah, you need so much material to create a scene, like you’re talking about. You’ve got to build a narrative, which is difficult. So it’s impressive that the scenes [with archival clips] feel seamless in the film. Similarly, the capturing of making the album with Fellove in 1999 is difficult and extremely captivating. I know the plan is for the album to be released this year, which is great. What was that whole experience like? Making that album with Fellove?
Yeah, it was really three weeks that we were down there. I had gone down there at the very last minute due to my relationship with Joey [Altruda]…and the rehearsals were really great. The magic was there. Fellove hadn’t recorded in a long time but he was a natural performer who was a very musical being. So getting into a room with a bunch of musicians and jamming was so natural for him. However, it was a different case in the recording studio. You know, things had changed since he’d been there, he hadn’t done it in a long time, technical things came up. That was difficult. And there were tensions. Tensions because the clock is ticking and I think really the fact that he was isolated in a booth singing, as opposed to being to kind of do what he wanted to do… I think that inhibited him a little bit. But then he got past that and everything was great.
Yeah, that was fascinating to watch and I think you’re right. The booth probably constricted him a little bit and he had to get used to that space again.
One of the things we felt early on was that look, this movie is special because of two things. Capturing this guy at that late period in his career. It’s so interesting to look at an artist in that later period because they bring so much it’s fascinating. And then the history of it all. It’s all very interesting. And then [those two things] together and striking that balance, that’s the challenge. It’s not easy to do. Especially since I decided––like an idiot––to become encyclopedic in some way. I became almost like a biographer in a way because I was treading into areas that had not been documented before. It’s in the movie. People talk about [the “Feeling” music movement] in books but not in movies. And there’s a misread on that. You know, Feeling is not what it’s thought to be. It seems like after the [Cuban Revolution] there was a mis-connect. Feeling began in the 1940s with American Jazz influences on young Cuban singers and songwriters. That changed the way the music was being written and performed. Later on, Feeling became Bolero music, it became romantic cocktail music. That’s not what it was. Fellove was part of Feeling but early on. It was all about jazz. They loved Nat King Cole. They loved Ella Fitzgerald. This is the kind of music they liked. It wasn’t schmaltzy and romantic ballads. It was jazzy too. And that’s what Fellove was. He was a guarachero, he was a guy that brought that flavor to it.
I was also interested in this migration that happened with Cubans going to Mexico. That’s another thing we don’t [seem to know much about historically].
Right, it felt like new information.
Look, people take for granted how great Cuban music is. How important it is, really. How much great music that island has produced. It’s really significant and important and one thing that’s important is the role that Mexico played in all of it. Mexico had the infrastructure and an incredible Golden Age that was happening in the late ‘40s into the ‘50s of film, television, and recordings. Great artists on every level. And the Cuban artists were able to take advantage of that. They thrived in that environment. Fellove is a product of that. Fellove as a Black man at that time was not going to get front and center on television in the early ‘50s. It just wasn’t happening. That’s not to say there weren’t Blacks on television at the time but they weren’t the frontman. And [Fellove] needed [to be the frontman] because that’s what his main thing was. He was a showman, he was a performer. Television in Mexico is where the door was wide open. He was able to live [and perform] and all of that. So he always felt a great sense of gratitude towards Mexico and the way they embraced him. If you look through that music, whether it’s Mongo Santamaría who’s probably one of the greatest, successful recording artists in America… Beny Moré… all roads went right through Mexico.
This is the second feature you’ve directed. Your first, City of Ghosts, is a film I like quite a bit. It was a treat to rewatch ahead of this interview, as a matter of fact.
That’s cool, I’m glad you like it.
It’s a movie I recommend to people so I’d like to ask about any recollections or memories you have from making the film, almost twenty years ago now.
It’s one of the best memories I’ve ever had doing something, man. I mean, we had so much fun making it and I hope that’s what transmits in the film. It was like a great adventure in a way. It took a while to get it made, they often do. I was doing this panel with Francis Coppola and he mentioned [City of Ghosts] because he had read drafts of the script and looked at cuts and stuff. He talked about something that was right on. What’s the best thing about making a movie as a filmmaker? It’s that you have an idea, you don’t know what’s going to happen, and then you watch it come to life. It’s a utopia, right? This is what I’d like to see happen, and it works. You do it, and it works. It doesn’t happen in life––sometimes it happens in life––but it can happen making a movie, in a way. And I felt that way about [El Gran Fellove] too. It’s something about, like I said earlier, the friendship I saw between Fellove and José Antonio Méndez… to watch that come to life…knowing that if I didn’t [make this movie] no one ever would. It would be forgotten, you know?
El Gran Fellove screened at Telluride Film Festival.