“El Gato” - A Documentary Film on Gato Barbieri's Life and Work

Project location: VARIOUS COUNTRIES
Project start date: January 2016 - Project end date: January 2017
Project number: 2015-054
Beneficiary: Human Arts Association Ltd.


The legendary GATO BARBIERI is a restless and innovative creative force. In his long career, he has gained fame for the unique sound- both fiery and mystical- of his tenor sax. He is receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Latin Grammys and has been nominated for an Oscar for his work on Last Tango in Paris. Despite the acclaim and over 50 albums to his credit, there is no biography or other historical documentation of this major artist.
Gato's work is a large piece of the history of jazz over the last half of the 20th Century and yet, it has never been documented.   
El Gato (the Cat) has had many musical lives. His first exposure at age 11 to Charlie Parker inspired him to move from clarinet to saxophone in his hometown of Rosario, Argentina. The sophistication and hot complexity of bebop music had him hooked. He quickly graduated to playing in Buenos Aires where he was invited to join a band led by another Argentine maverick, Lalo Schifrin. This was the 50s, and the country was under the dictatorship of Juan Perón who prohibited public performances of foreign music. The solution was to play traditional Argentine music- tangos and chacareras- with a jazz twist. Barbieri’s sound continued to evolve when a move to Europe in the early 60’s introduced him to free jazz. In Paris and Rome, he performed with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Carla Bley, Stanley Clarke, Lonnie Liston Smith and many others. He also entered the vibrant Italian film scene, working with directors Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci.
Gato’s passion for film was expressed through his scoring many soundtracks for both European and Latin American movies. In 1969, a return to his roots created a fusion of the music of his native Argentina with the experimental jazz of Europe and his sound took yet another turn with the album LATIN AMERICA. Explorations with indigenous sounds of Argentina, Brazil and other Latin American countries served to make Gato a pioneer in the emerging sounds of World Music .
He continued his explorations throughout the next two decades. In 1973, his score for Bertolucci’s LAST TANGO IN PARIS, earned him a GRAMMY Award and an OSCAR nomination. In the 90s, after dropping out from the music scene to deal with personal tragedy and health issues, his sound evolved once again, putting Barbieri at the forefront of the smooth jazz movement.  

At 82, Gato Barbieri is a musical giant. His career spans six decades, three continents and fifty recorded albums that often cross musical borders, defying categorization. Yet he is a mystery even to his many fans. With this film the Association will shed some light on the man behind the iconic jazz image. Through interviews, film footage, photos, music and conversations with the enigmatic Gato himself, the goal is to tell a story of great cultural significance.
Much has been done on the roots of jazz music in North America, but it's dissemination and influences world-wide are not always obvious. The ways in which the American jazz artists of the first half of the 20th Century were received in places like South America and their impact on local musicians is not well known.
Gato Barbieri's life and work will provide an insightful look into those influences. How a young boy growing up in the relatively obscure town of Rosario, Argentina in the 1940s and 1950s was affected by these artists and what he did as a result will connect with both film and musical audiences alike. The young Gato would move to the big city of Buenos Aires where he would hone his craft while trying to make a living at it. Political repression would also play a role in the evolution of his music. The requirement of the country's dictator that a certain amount of a musician's live set be native Argentinian music forced Gato to explore that world and to spin it in his own particular way - his first true moment of "fusion."  The feature length documentary film will cover Gato's life and work, especially his contribution to all forms of jazz, from classic bebop to the free jazz of the 1960s to his collaborations with major filmmakers like Pasolini and Bertolucci to his work fusing jazz with the indigenous music of his native Argentina and, finally, to his work at the forefront of the "smooth jazz" era. The film will span not only decades but also the continents of South and North America as well as Europe. The film will connect Gato’s musical journey to the foundations of what we now know as world music. Interviews with family, friends, musicologists, jazz historians and musicians will help us shed light on this mysterious artist. In this way, the project will both preserve a rich piece of jazz history and document it’s connection to a world fusion sound that is so prevalent today.

Project timetable:

  • Fall 2016: Research, interviews, planning for live concert in Buenos Aires, Gato to receive Lifetime Achievement Award from Latin Grammys in November
  • Spring 2016: Concert in Buenos Aires to honor Gato and his music – concert to be filmed as part of the documentary
  • Summer 2016: Editing
  • Fall 2016: Documentary completed; premiere TBD ( Potentially, Sundance Film Festival 2017; Berlinale 2017)

This project received a grant from the Nando and Elsa Peretti Foundation. The film will serve as an historical document showing the foundations of what is now known as "world music". It will also illustrate the creative possibilities of musical fusion and its impact on audiences and artists alike. Gato's creative spirit and energy will be embodied in the film and his visionary thought process along with his rebellious spirit will provide inspiration to artists of many disciplines. The film will also serve to bring a Gato's music - along with his own influences - to the attention of a modern audience by making the connecting his work to current musical trends such as the advancement of genres as diverse as neo-tango and indigenous music.   It will provide a cultural link between the musical scenes of Buenos Aires, Rome, Paris and New York. The film will bring all of this to a world audience, with anticipated releases in North America, South America, Europe and Asia through a variety of outlets including film festivals, theatrical, television and internet streaming channels.

Human Arts Association has produced and sponsored many documentary films.   This project is a partnership with he filmmaking team of Nancy Savoca and Richard Guay. Savoca and Guay have made many award winning feature length films that have premiered at all of the world’s major film festivals- Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, among others - and received international distribution. 
Nancy Savoca’s first feature, TRUE LOVE won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the main Prize at the San Sebastian International Film Festival. Entertainment Weekly named it “One of 50 Greatest Independent Films of All-Time”. Her feature work includes HOUSEHOLD SAINTS (with Tracey Ullman & Vincent D’Onofrio), DOGFIGHT (with River Phoenix & Lili Taylor), 24 HOUR WOMAN (with Oscar nominees Rosie Perez & Marianne Jean-Baptiste), REBEL WITHOUT A PAUSE: Unrestrained Reflections on September 11th (awarded the Seal of Peace & Liberty from Florence, Italy), DIRT, a bilingual film about immigration set in NYC and El Salvador (winner Best Director from the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival.
Her latest feature, UNION SQUARE (with Oscar winner, Mira Sorvino, Emmy winner, Tammy Blanchard & Tony winner, Patti LuPone) premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012.  
Her television work includes HBO’s IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK – a three part look at abortion rights (with Demi Moore, Sissy Spacek & Cher). It became the network’s highest rated original movie. Most recently, she directed IF THERE BE THORNS for Lifetime Network. 
Savoca’s work has screened at festivals around the world and has received Golden Globe, Emmy and Independent Spirit Award nominations. There have been retrospectives at the Museum of the Moving Image and Women in Film New York. 
Richard Guay has co-written and produced for his partner, Ms. Savoca, as well as for filmmakers Bill Condon (KINSEY), Jonathan Demme (SUBWAY STORIES) and Jim Jarmusch (GHOST DOG).  His first film TRUE LOVE won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and San Sebastian. Three of his films have been nominated for Independent Spirit Awards as Best Picture (TRUE LOVE, GHOST DOG and KINSEY) and one for Best Screenplay, Best Actor & Best Supporting Actress (HOUSEHOLD SAINTS). Together, these filmmakers are uniquely positioned to make a distinctive film that will have world-wide appeal.

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