Rita Moreno, Sparks: Behind the Music

Listening to two documentaries about people who have made music their life.

Rita Moreno, Sparks: Behind the Music

This week, the key new things in the multiplex are two documentaries about two very different musical careers as well as the pros and cons they have had over the decades. Rita Moreno won an Oscar in 1962, and with rights that should have led to mainline Hollywood stardom. It did not, since the industry had no clue what to do with a Latina actress in the early 1960s, one that was manifestly talented at many things, even one who could pass for white (that she did at her little role in Singin' in the Rain), even one who had been young, attractive, and sexy. A lot of people would become discouraged under those conditions, but she kept plugging away. Today Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It looks back on her own remarkable achievements.

Unvarnished truth is exactly what this movie is about, and it goes beyond viewing the celebrity without her wig and makeup. The documentary shows us her early characters, when her skin was black with"makeup the colour of sand" in her words so that she could play with Polynesians, Asians, and Native Americans. It wasn't just that these components stolen her ethnicity, but instead they were essentially the same, the colored woman who's the white guy's side piece until he goes off to wed the demure, commendable white lady. Perversely, Anita at West Side Story was the first role where she played a Puerto Rican.

Moreno talks of being raped by her representative and then letting him continue to work as her agent. Instead, he arranged to get an illegal abortion which nearly killed her. Later, she would try to kill himself. The whole affair did one great thing for her, however, because his passion for social causes inspired her to speak out likewise for racial justice and diplomatic access.

Quite a few of them first saw her to the kids' TV program The Electric Company, where she discovered something close to artistic liberty in a format that enabled her to play all kinds of roles. The best insights come from the movie scholars who detail the difficulties confronting a Latina actress during her time and out of Hector Elizondo, the Puerto Rican modern who notes that the considerable difficulties he faced were nothing compared to hers.

As I post this, Rita Moreno is back in the headlines weighing on In the Heights. The film makes clear that she will not leave a chance to speak her thoughts, having done thus too much early in her life. She refers to the part of herself as"Rosita," the insecure little Puerto Rican girl who needs to entertain folks to win their acceptance. Rosita has made Rita miserable for long stretches, but she is probably also the main reason why Rita has attained so much. Director Mariem Pérez Riera doesn't try to do a great deal, simply sitting back as Moreno films the Netflix remake of One Day at a Time and her part in Steven Spielberg's forthcoming teaser of West Side Story. If you live long enough, everything comes around, and Moreno still has a mercurial mind and can still bust out some dance moves. She turns 90 this past year. She's an inspiration to us all.

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