JOSE FELICIANO: BEHIND THIS GUITAR
Imagine, if you will, that the human brain consists of a huge number of index cards: you can imagine it as a vintage Rolodex or an old-school library card catalogue. In the file within my brain labelled “Famous People/Musicians” (or words to that effect), there would be an index card for Jose Feliciano. For most of the time that card has existed, the details thereon have been embarrassingly minimal:
I’m not proud of that, but there it is—and I would assume at least some other people have similar index cards in their heads. Earlier this year, I added a sixth item to the index card via the soundtrack of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, a soundtrack meant to capture the feeling of bumming around and listening to Los Angeles’s iconic KHJ “Boss Radio” station in the late sixties. Late in the soundtrack, Feliciano shows up, delivering a luxe cover of “California Dreaming”. (It’s so luxe and lounge-y, it makes the already-jarring track that follows it in the soundtrack about ten times more jarring.)
Because I knew so little about the man—and because that newest item had been in heavy rotation on my headphones since the pandemic began, 703 years ago—I was excited to learn that one of this year’s offerings at the Nashville Film Festival was Jose Feliciano: Behind This Guitar, directed by Frank Licari and Helen Murphy. I expected to come away knowing far more about the man, and I was not disappointed; in fact, they did a very neat trick—they turned the story of his life (normally a very linear thing) into an actual narrative.
Guitar doesn’t begin at the beginning, per se, but chooses to start with an early and pivotal moment in his career—and even that only comes after something of a misdirection. We begin with talking-head footage of other Latino musicians—Gloria Estefan, Carlos Santana—offering unmitigated praise for Feliciano, stating plainly that he was a pioneer in the music business, but for whom they themselves might not have careers. We’re told right off the bat that he’s a great guy and an important musician…and then there’s footage of people throwing beer cans at him.
The can-throwing, and other abuse, stems from the early and pivotal moment I mentioned: Feliciano’s performance, in October of 1968, of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Game 5 of the World Series between the Detroit Tigers and St Louis Cardinals. Having already established a tendency to cover well-known songs in his own smooth, uncompromisingly Latin sensibility, he did the same to the National Anthem—only to find out that a huge swath of Middle America was not ready for that yet. He’s pelted with garbage, and radio stations across the country play him considerably less; his meteoric rise seems to have been halted, even though attitudes about the National Anthem would change by the very next year (and decades later, we would be given full clarity about what a really objectionable cover of the National Anthem sounds like).
But wait—what meteoric rise? We’ve started with the Anthem, so we don’t know at this point how far Jose has gotten in his career. After documenting the Anthem incident, Licari and Murphy set about the completely expected business of filling in the musician’s backstory.
Born in Lores, Puerto Rico in 1945—born blind, due to glaucoma—Feliciano is only five years old when he and his family fly to New York City, part of a wave of Puerto Rican immigration to the city that shifted its culture (and, of course, fostered culture.) An aunt sent him to a school for the blind, which happens to have a music curriculum, leading him at the age of nine to pick up his first guitar. During that same year—again, his first year playing guitar—his mother signs him up for a contest being held by the still-extant Café Bustelo coffee company; Jose wins, and his prize is three days of performing at Teatro Latino in the Bronx, his performances also broadcast on WWRL, a black radio station based in Manhattan.
From there, he seems to be fast-tracked to stardom, and Licari & Murphy have an unusual advantage regarding their subject matter, which they use copiously—footage. It’s not that we don’t believe that Jose’s star rose quickly, but seeing kinescopes of him on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour, when he is 17 years old serve to drive the point home–and do so as vividly as possible. The early appearances and a season performing the Greenwich Village circuit lead to his contract with RCA Records (who sought, at first, to change his name; he refused), which results in the album A Voice, A Shadow, A Guitar, the album which nets Feliciano the Best New Artist Grammy for 1968, and yields his breakout single, his cover of Light My Fire (which leads to the best and funniest quote in the entire film, Doors guitarist Robby Krieger’s stoned deadpan “I think I owe a big debt to Jose”).
The doc becomes rote—but a captivating rote—soon after this, touching again on the World Series, and the later points in his career; I can’t and don’t fault the directors for this, because, well, if you’re making a documentary about Person X, how do you not tell Person X’s life story? And it is, again, a captivating rote, telling us not only what happened but why: shunned by American radio, he tours and records in Europe, produces Feliz Navidad in 1970, releases “Que Sera”, a song that doesn’t chart in the US, but is the number-one song on the charts in three other countries, in three separate languages. His re-emergence stateside with the theme to “Chico And The Man” may seem like a step down, until the filmmakers tell us that theme song was the first American TV theme song not composed by a WASP. Jose, in other words, opened that door for Quincy Jones.
Where Behind This Guitar really soars is when it catches up with modern Jose Feliciano—married to the former president of his fan club, raising two kids who are also musicians, and finally getting closure on the World Series incident, when he is invited back to Detroit to play the Anthem again, to a standing ovation (especially from the Tigers themselves, who never forgot a curious little detail about the ’68 World Series: the night he sang the Anthem was Game Four, which they won, as well as the next three games. They viewed Jose as a good-luck charm). We also see Jose perform his Latin-jazz version of the Anthem at the Smithsonian—in the same room where Old Glory itself is displayed, on the day that he donates his original guitar to them. It’s simple but profound: attitudes have changed, perceptions have changed, the outsider has become an icon.
That said, the icon retains a sense of humility and humor, assessing his own story as an incredible life lived “Behind This Guitar,” which, beyond being the title of this doc, is revealed at the end to be a new song Jose has written. It’s beautiful, of course, and the film is a great tribute to the man, doing what the best documentaries do with individuals—flesh them out in our minds beyond the few items on an index card.