El Gran Fellove is full of feel-good moments. When, in the movie, recording starts in the studio, he has no idea who Matt Dillon is. But he is soon riffing about his new friend, at one point christening him “El Gran Mateo.”
Dillon builds an emotional connection to Fellove that deepens as we see the singer struggling to muster his former mojo. It’s later revealed, sadly, that the finished album was never released in his lifetime; Fellove died in Mexico City in 2013.
But El Gran Fellove revives his legacy and also introduces him to generations that never knew his music. Dillon’s second outing as a director (after the 2002 feature City of Ghosts), El Gran Fellove is a testimony to his own deep connection to Cuban music and musicians, and what he calls his “archeological” interest in the music’s history and context. “Once I started to listen to Afro-Cuban music, there wasn’t anything else I was interested in for a long time,” he says. “And I say Afro-Cuban music, but it started with New York Puerto Rican records like Joe Cuba and Charlie Palmieri. And then it’s such a broad spectrum, there’s so much great music. And that’s how I got here.”
Dillon researched the life and times of the Cuban artist through numerous interviews and archival footage, tracing his journey from his rumba roots in Havana’s Afro-Cuban Colon neighborhood to his place at the center of Cuban jazz jams in the late '40s and '50s.
“He was a real innovator early on,” Dillon says. “His style of performing was very modern, influenced by jazz. The music was very Cuban, very playful, and yet it was very, very jazzy.”
As reflected in the film, Fellove was among the many Afro-Cuban musicians who, by the mid-'50s, had left the island to ignite their careers in Mexican nightclubs and movies, at a time when, as one artist told Dillon, if you were working in television in Cuba and you were Black, you were more likely to be sweeping the floors than to be performing in front of the camera.
Fellove was at the top of his game in Mexico in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Then the tide turned.
“When rock 'n roll starts to come in, all of the people playing the kind of music that he was doing, orchestras and Afro-Cuban music, they call it tropical music in Mexico, they all were being challenged,” Dillon explains. “It was rock and The Beatles that changed everything.”
In El Gran Fellove, Dillon skirted giving himself a starring role in the film, but he does narrate it. And in the opening scenes, he briefly appears playing congas, and reveals the extensive record collection housed in his New York apartment. It features many rare titles he got on trips to Cuba, which he first visited in 1993, before the success of Buena Vista Social Club and, later, Obama-era policies, brought vinyl-hunting DJs down to the island en masse.
“I’d just go through the bins and these records were in terrible shape,” he says, recalling his visits to a Havana record stall in the country’s post-Soviet years. “And I would look on the label, and if it said son montuno or mambo, then I would jump on it.”
Tipped off to Fellove’s music, he listened to his best-known composition “Mango Mangue,” which was covered by Machito and Celia Cruz, among others, and his signature song “El Jamaiquino,”by the avant-garde tres player Niño Rivera. “I just loved it, I didn’t question it, it’s a feeling you have right away,” Dillon says. “It was that voice, he had this incredible voice. He immediately went right into the top-tier category of all the music I love, like Arsenio Rodríguez and Beny Moré and René Alvarez; he was right up there at the top. This guy was great, and I needed to know more about him and what he was doing.”
He shared Fellove’s songs with Altruda, a friend with whom he often swapped mixtapes of latest finds. Altruda, who can be seen swinging and playing upright bass in the movie alongside Fellove, and who is a co-producer of the film, has recorded with international greats including Mongo Santamaría and Ernest Ranglin. When Dillon discovered through a DJ that Fellove was alive and living in Mexico City, Altruda contacted him about making an album. Altruda tells Billboard that the record was orphaned when he lost his recording contract; he now plans to release it in 2021 and is currently shopping for a record deal.
As for Dillon and the documentary, it took a while. But, it was worth it. “I knew it was amazing to capture someone like him, someone who’s really something special when he walks in the room,” Dillon says. “[At first] I didn’t know what it was as far as a story. But as the years went on, I never gave up on the project.”