Most people know Matt Dillon as an actor who grew up in front of the cameras (“My Bodyguard,” “The Outsiders,” “The Flamingo Kid”). He won two Indie Spirit Awards for “Drugstore Cowboy” and for “Crash;” that one also yielded a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Dillon also made a strong directing debut in 2003 with moody thriller “City of Ghosts” co-starring James Caan, Gerard Depardieu, and Stellan Skarsgård.
None of that addressed an all-consuming passion for world music with a vast collection of vinyl and shellac 78s (sorted alphabetically by artist or label), and making a documentary about Cuban scat singer Francisco Fellove that took him 20 years to complete. “The Great Fellove” debuted to rave reviews at San Sebastian 2020, and more recently, Telluride 2021.
in the film, Cuban rumba performer Chan Campos describes Fellove: “He was a drum from his feet to his head.” (See our clip below.) Dillon’s documentary captures the scat maestro who gave us the original “Mango Mangue,” but it took the prodding of no fewer than eight producers over the years to get him over the finish line — from long-haulers Jonathan Gray, Fisher Stevens, and Zara Duffy, to Julie Goldman, Chris Clements and Carolyn Hepburn, with Jon Kamen and Ken Pelletier in the closing stretch.
In Telluride, where he took a break from filming Wes Anderson’s latest sprawling ensemble in Madrid, Dillon sat down with me to explain how his passion for Cuban music led to his discovery of Fellove, who died in 2013 at age 89.
Anne Thompson: The movie opens with you playing your old bongos. When did you first visit Havana? I went to the film festival in 1987 and got to hear Arturo Sandoval play the trumpet.
Matt Dillon: That was part of the Soviets. I think it was ’92. I went with Fisher Stevens. I was into all kinds of music. I used to always carry a Super-8 camera, it was one that I got when I was doing “Drugstore Cowboy.” And I would always shoot stuff. So I brought it with me to Havana. Some of that footage I used in the beginning of the film. I keep talking about the music being everywhere in New York, Latin music in particular. I would go into these clubs. I didn’t know what half the stuff was back then. But I would go to Havana quite a bit. And that brings me to meeting [producer and bandleader] Joey Altruda, when I was doing “Beautiful Girls” in Toronto, and he was visiting another actor, and he was a bigger record nerd than I was. We would make tapes and send them to each other: “Check this out, man, you’re going to love this stuff!”
Who introduced you to Cuban scat singing?
The first guy I heard was a guy called Guapacha, who some people called an imitator of Fellove. And I don’t think it’s entirely fair because Guapacha was absolutely a talent in his own right. And this Cuban DJ was like, “Well, if you like Guapacha, then Fellove is really the real guy who’s the innovator of that style.” And somebody along the line said that Fellove was alive. He was in Mexican exile. So I told Joey, because he did recordings with Les Baxter, and he was always working with older musicians.
It’s one thing to fall in love with an artist. It’s another to see what the story is, and figure out how to tell it. Filming went over 20 years, including the 1999 recording sessions with Altruda of his last (unreleased) album, “Fellove & Joey.”
It’s a gestation, and part of that was making the record. When I had told Joey about this guy, I was writing a script for a film that I directed. I was in the middle of that.
“City of Ghosts.”
I liked directing. And I had directed a couple of music videos and CDs. I didn’t have any background in documentaries.
You must have seen “Buena Vista Social Club”?
I bought the record. A lot of people think that the movie was the first thing, but there was a record and then they made a movie. I remember being in Havana, and meeting Compay Segundo when the record had been already made, but he didn’t mention anything about Wim Wenders, because they hadn’t made the movie yet. Fellove was a contemporary of theirs, especially Omara Portuondo, she was a young singer and part of the Cuarteto d’Aida, and those writers, Fellove, and José Antonio Méndez were writing songs, but they couldn’t get anywhere as performers with their music until this female quartet started to sell and become successful. So some of those people that were in “Buena Vista Social Club” were Fellove’s contemporaries. “Buena Vista Social Club” were older musicians. Joey and I felt that we had found these guys who were really good, and that Fellove was a more significant innovator.
Fellove invented a style of improv jazz scat singing?
Scat singing is vocals without words that are emulating sound instruments. Louis Armstrong is attributed as being the first, certainly on a commercial level. And Fellove was doing it in a distinctly Cuban style, he was taking African instrumentation and emulating those things at the top for Afro Cuban, that was what made what he was doing distinctive. There have been other scat singers, Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald or Louis Prima, and there’s even been other scat singers in Cuba, but they were imitating jazz.
Fellove wasn’t appreciated in Cuba and went to Mexico, where he was thriving for decades. Had he retired when you found him?
When he got to Mexico, it happened really fast. Cuba at the time didn’t have the same infrastructure and there’s enormous talent there. And I bring up the racial thing because it’s significant. He was Black. He was Cuban and they were disenfranchised. They were the poor fringe. These were not jazz musicians, integrating music at a professional level; they were young guys and girls hanging out, doing their thing usually in the bars or certain clubs, the Gato bar, listening to American jazz on the jukebox. They would meet North Americans, sailors and marines who would sell them jazz records. That’s what they live for. They started to infuse that into their own Cuban compositions and that’s where it became more melodic and less about Cuba. We know Cuba is about the drums. And the modern influence of the North American Songbook and jazz happened in the ’40s, at the compositional songwriting level. That’s what it was for Fellove. He could not become a performer in Cuba.
Mexico City was more sophisticated?
Vera Cruz is where Fellove arrived [in 1955]. Then they made their way to Mexico City, which has a thriving music and film industry. Even before Fellove, you had many artists coming. So there was always a relationship. It was the Gulf, the relationship between Cuba and Mexico.
Fellove wasn’t thriving when we found him [in 1999]. He was playing around with other people. He was always performing, but he hadn’t recorded for a long time. He was such a great performer. This stuff he did on the street. He’s showing you the arrangements, he was doing it and doing it with ease. And that’s the beauty of an artist in their late stages. There’s an easiness there.
You saw that the relationship between Cuba and Mexican jazz hadn’t been defined in a movie documentary. You pull all these threads together: the recording session, his story, and the Cuban music diaspora.
It was not easy. The reason it took so long for me was because I come from fiction filmmaking, right. We make a movie, we got pre-production, production and post-production. And if you’re doing a reshoot, it’s a big deal. They don’t generally do them. When they do, it’s a major production. But when you’re making a documentary, there’s real fluidity, you’re editing, you shoot something, “let’s go pick that up,” you can go with three or four people.
We did have financing, but it is a labor of love. Maybe one of the reasons I put it off in 1999, when I shot all that footage [of the recording sessions] was I knew I would have to go get lost in the woods and find my way out.
Did you have help?
You can’t do this alone. Are you kidding me? But that’s part of what’s beautiful for me about the process of filmmaking, is it’s collaborative. There has to be the boss, right? You have to have that. You need to have a vision. The reason the wilderness that I got lost in was bigger was because these people kept turning up that were like, “They’re still alive!” Older folks that were incredible. Rene Lopez. We had to interview them.
The archives were rich!
The best thing was the personal archives, Dandy Beltran and Sylvia Cuesta’s personal collections, and Fellove’s letters. That’s when I knew I had this movie, because I could pull the story together. I needed some some historical stuff, photos. People taking out their photo albums. And making the connections with that. So to me, this was a film about friendship as much as it was about the music. The archive was good. But it didn’t matter. It didn’t mean anything unless I was connected to what was going on. And that was the key for me, was the emotional connection. I made this film because of my friendship with Joey.
How did you cut it down?
I feel a responsibility: The film has to be entertaining, it has to be engaging, it can’t be dry. And so emotion first, information second. Good. That’s it. There are people that are interested in those facts, but they’re only able to absorb so much. So my answer was Fellove, always going back to that man. That was the key. And when I would get lost, I’d go back to, “Who’s my guy? Fellove is my guy.” And I could have done some kind of jive, reality-television thing, [when Fellove and Joey] started to fight. There’s this drama going on, but that’s not what this is about. Creative processes, there’s always tensions.
It’s very moving, when you see him come to life in those intimate recording sessions.
The rehearsals were incredible because they were just doing what came naturally — playing the music, singing, performing. And they get into the recording studio, he hasn’t been there in a long time, things have changed a little bit. There are charts, there are scores that they have to adhere to. The clock is ticking. And it started to wane. And he’s older. He’s got diabetes, Parkinson’s is there. And it’s tough for him. There was a blowup at one point where it looked like they’re gonna have to pack it up. And then he steps into the booth and he starts to do this thing. And it’s beautiful. And he takes everybody with him. Once that happened, more or less, it was smooth sailing.
The record hasn’t been released?
Well, it does exist. My dear friend Joey, I love him to death, I leave that to him.
Selling the movie could help.
Of course. There’s the soundtrack, that would include the record. There’s the soundtrack of everything that Fellove did back in the day and all these other musicians. The soundtrack doesn’t incorporate just the work of Fellove, which is significant. It also has all those other artists, the feeling, movement, all the mambo and Mexico. So it’s all part of the story.
There’s joy in being able to share your passions. You’ve been working in Hollywood a long time. This is something else. And it must have been creatively satisfying when you were frustrated in other ways.
What’s important to me is art, storytelling, creativity. What’s beautiful about documentaries is to tap into those meaningful themes in life. “Hey, this guy lived, and this is what this guy did. He didn’t get recognized, but I’m looking at it now. And I’m telling you, that’s what he did.” And it’s worth looking at, right? That’s what we can do.