It was with de Lucia, and later with guitarist Tomatito and other forward-thinking musicians, that the prodigious José Mongé Cruz, known since childhood as Camarón (prawn) for his fair hair and complexion, changed the sound of flamenco starting in the 1970s. Camarón was lauded as the greatest flamenco singer who ever lived (a title that he arguably still holds) at the same time that he was maligned by flamenco purists who found his unbounded vocals and perceived rock star stylings unbecoming to the sacred art.
“Purity is something that you never lose when you really have it inside,” Camarón said in an excerpt from an interview included in the film. Stating he was misunderstood and seeming assured that time would tell, as it has, he shrugged off the criticism. “I’m just doing my thing.”
Camarón was a legend in his time, whose contemporary take on the music of his childhood in a gypsy enclave in Southern Spain jibed with the cultural changes that were connecting Spain to the world at the decline of dictator Francisco Franco’s reign. His music attracted flamenco lovers. “Young, old, non-gypsies, gypsies,” says actor Juan Diego in the poetic narration that he voices in the film. “The Camarón effect was unstoppable.”
The flamenco singer battled with heroin, and when he died at age 41 in July of 1992, it was rumored the cause of AIDS - this documentary confirms it was lung cancer. Over 100,000 people attended his funeral. Appreciation for his music received its due as his image swelled to saintly proportions. In an interview with Billboard, director Morente compared Camarón, to Elvis Presley, Bob Marley and Jim Morrison.
“I wanted to explain how the myth was built,” Morante said.
He was given total access by Camarón’s wife and other family members; a forgotten box containing 20 VHS tapes yielded previously unseen footage of Camerón. The story told in the documentary is a well-known one in Spain and among international fans of flamenco that has been the subject of previous film and television documentaries. Morente approaches it with magic realist touches, and frames Camarón’s story within the historic struggle of the Roma people.
More engaging is the emotional and entertaining narration, written by Morante and Raúl Santos and told by Diego, whose Andalusian accent gives instant context to the life of Camarón. Morante notes that Camarón’s reputation was growing internationally in the time before his death. Quincy Jones introduced him at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1991.
Just months before his death in 1992, he gave his last concert with Tomatito in Madrid,
“It was a time when Spain [which hosted the Olympics adn the World’s Fair that year] was also rising,” Morante says. “He would have been unstoppable on a global level.”