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Billy Elliot Wears Kinky Boots in Viva

Viva drag movie cuba

Viva—the new movie about a young Cuban named Jesús (Hector Medina) who wants to be a drag performer and so defies the rules of his ex-con father Angel (Jorge Perugorria)—was Ireland’s entry in last year’s Academy Awards competition for Best Foreign Language Film. But that’s not the only odd thing about it. Although it was filmed in Havana with a cast of talented Cuban actors, almost everything about it seems premeditated and contrived—from the image of ghetto desperation that marginalizes gays and women (“We’re Cubans; we’re born exhibitionists that’s why we make such fabulous whores!” one drag hustler tells Jesús) to the sentimental depiction of both Jesús and Angel’s miscommunication.

This is the story of a lost boy and a lost dad, distant from their true feelings. Both are victimized by the way that long-standing, Latin customs of patriarchy impose rules of behavior on men. But Viva’s sodden theme is very obviously and predictably worked-out: Jesús is encouraged by a ragamuffin troupe of drag queens, including the tough, wise veteran, Mama (Luis Alberto Garcia); Angel first asserts his paternal privilege when he moves-in and takes over the tenement dwelling then gradually warms to the son who is totally unlike him; and, of course, there’s a weepy yet triumphant finale.

This hot mess of clichés stinks suspiciously like a well-worn pair of Kinky Boots. The production suggests an R-rated Disney movie calculated to eventually become Broadway tourist bait. The scenes where skinny Jesús fumbles through his first lip-sync attempts (he’s the epitome of RuPaul’s “And don’t fuck it up!”), wearing amateurish make-up, clumsily “tucked” into a gown and tentatively pacing the stage, is hackneyed. It’s Billy Elliot in communist drag.

Viva itself tentatively makes political commentary but by saluting Castro—not The Castro—it soft-pedals Cuba’s gay oppression and the country’s still obvious impoverishment. Even Cuba’s homophobia, which the late cinematographer Nestor Almendros reported in the 1984 documentary Improper Conduct, is internalized here: Mama warns “This city does terrible things to the helpless.” Yet Angel muses “This is still the most beautiful slum in the world.”

Visiting director Paddy Breathnach and his sightseeing screenwriter Mark O’Halloran indulge some touristy exoticism about these highly-sexed people of color, including the way sex is used to disguise low self esteem. (Jesús risks some unprotected hustling and takes his drag name “Viva” from the title of a fashion magazine) but even this is superficial—a half-cute nod to Pedro Almodovar that makes one dearly miss Almodovar.  

Do Breathnach and O’Halloran know that Jesús and Angel’s relationship is the flip side of the father-son rapport in the far superior The Sum of Us? That 1994 Australian film (based on a stage play by Jack Stevens) starred Jack Thompson and Russell Crowe as a widowed father and his gay son, both looking for mates. The Sum of Us was charming and genuinely moving. It’s modern reconciliation with Aussie machismo was forward-thinking while Viva relies on old-fashioned stereotypes--which Mama denounces when calling Angel “stupid macho fucker!

No doubt when Viva finally makes it to Broadway, big, black, bodacious Mama will have a showstopping number based on her advice to Jesús/Viva: “Stand there honest and strong and sing.” Hopefully the chorus will add, “And don’t fuck it up!

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