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Film / The Mambo Kings

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"In the name of the Mambo, the Rumba, and the Cha-Cha-Cha."

The Mambo Kings is a 1992 musical drama directed by Arne Glimcher and based on the award-winning novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos.

Cesar (Armand Assante) and Nestor Castillo (Antonio Banderas) are two Cuban musicians (Cesar's a singer and the manager, while Nestor plays trumpet and is the songwriter) who are forced to flee Cuba in the 1950's to escape the wrath of a gangster. They go to New York City to live with relatives, and try to break into the music business. Except the clubs are controlled by Fernando Perez (Roscoe Lee Browne), and since Cesar refuses to be under the thumb of a gangster again, the brothers and their band have to struggle. Meanwhile, though Nestor falls in love with Delores Fuentes (Maruschka Detmers), a student, he misses his old girlfriend Maria (Talisa Soto) from Cuba.


Best known for its Oscar-nominated song "Beautiful Maria of My Soul".

This movie contains examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: The story in the movie only makes up a small portion of the novel; most of the novel takes place years later.
  • And I'm the Queen of Sheba: When Cesar claims to Lana she's the first American woman he's slept with, she responds, "And I'm the Statue of Liberty."
  • As Himself: Mambo legend Tito Puente.
  • Break His Heart to Save Him: At the beginning of the movie, Maria goes with a gangster who would kill Cesar and Nestor otherwise. She begs Cesar not to tell Nestor, and for a while, he keeps that promise.
  • Chivalrous Pervert: Cesar is somewhere between this and The Casanova.
  • Historical Domain Character: Desi Arnaz (played by Desi Arnaz Jr.) gives the Castillo brothers their big break by having them appear on I Love Lucy.
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  • Large Ham: Cesar.
    Anna Maria: He thinks he's the last Coca-Cola in the desert.
    Lana: He is, honey.
  • Love Triangle: Delores falls in love with Nestor, but while he loves her, he's still hung up on Maria. Meanwhile, she also has feelings for Cesar, and he for her, but they never act on them because they don't want to hurt Nestor.
  • Mood Whiplash: The movie goes back and forth between the exhilaration of the music and the dark turns of the plot, particularly when Nestor cheats on Delores, and when he dies in the car accident.
  • Real Event, Fictional Cause: The famous I Love Lucy episode "Cuban Pals" is here shown to be an excuse for Desi Arnaz (played by his Real Life son, Desi Arnaz, Jr.) to invite the Mambo Kings to appear on an episode of the show. The "translation" scene is re-created with Cesar and Nestor appearing in the place of the original actors (and Desi Jr. in place of his father) while archive footage of Lucille Ball is used from the original episode. Then a wholly fictitious scene is shown of Desi-as-Ricky introducing the Mambo Kings to perform "Beautiful Maria of My Soul" at the Tropicana nightclub. The real I Love Lucy often had musical numbers, but Desi/Ricky was very much the star of all of them - he would happily perform with a musical guest but he wouldn't cede the stage to them as he does in the movie. (For bonus points, the Castillo family is shown watching I Love Lucy as if it were airing live - but though the show was filmed before a live studio audience, it was just that - filmed, and aired later.)
  • Time Passes Montage: While Fernando and Evalina are seen dancing, we see the cheap gigs the Mambo Kings and their band are forced to play, such as a bar mitzvah and a birthday party.