GLENS FALLS — The Adirondack Theatre Festival staged its annual film festival Oct. 13 with a regional premiere of a short documentary featuring the band Blondie performing a culturally path-breaking concert in Cuba in 2019.
The opening night screening of “Blondie: Vivir en la Habana” staged at the Charles R. Wood Theater and included a Q&A between ATF Producing Artistic Director Miriam Weisfeld and the film’s director Rob Roth.
“I realized afterwards how these cultural exchanges are really important,” said Roth, regarding the band’s concert, which was part of an official cultural exchange between Havana and New York City. “It was perfect timing, because the previous administration had opened up a dialogue with Cuba and we just made it, because the next administration just shut it all down.”
It was Blondie co-founder and guitarist Chris Stein who was the driving force behind the journey. “He would tell the manager: ‘Just get us to Cuba. Just get us to Cuba,’” Roth said. Ironically, Stein wasn’t ultimately able to make the trek, due to illness.
Blondie burst out of the Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s scene in downtown Manhattan in the mid-70s with their self-titled debut (most notably featuring the songs “X Offender,” and “Rip Her To Shreds”), and its follow-up LP ‘Plastic Letters.’ It was their third release, ‘Parallel Lines,’ that gained them national attention with the hit “Heart of Glass” in 1979 – and it is from this period and on into the ‘80s with the subsequent hit songs “Rapture” and “The Tide Is High” that the 18-minute documentary focuses its soundtrack.
“I didn’t really know how I was going to shoot in a communist country. It just came to me one day: I’m going to shoot it on film, 8mm and 16mm. And I think that had a much more deep effect, because it’s almost like a lens of time that they’re stuck in, and also the lens of what I call metaphysical; the magic happening around them,” said Roth, adding that he first struck up a friendship with Blondie lead singer Debbie Harry during the 1990s, when they both attended weekly Tuesday night parties at Jackie 60 nightclub in New York City’s meatpacking district.
“Only one time did my cameraman have a problem with officials – I don’t even know who they were, but they came out of nowhere. We were shooting on the street and the camera moved to what I think was a government building of some sort, and they were there like - that!” said Roth, snapping his fingers together for emphasis. “But, they were pretty cool about it. We just had to not shoot that building. I don’t know what the building was. And I don’t even want to know what it was,” he said with a laugh.
Roth - a longtime collaborator with Blondie, has also worked on projects with David Bowie, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna, among others.
There was initial interest in using some archival footage tracing the band’s origins to New York City in the ‘70s, but Harry wasn’t particularly keen to the idea. “She doesn’t like to go to the past a lot. I was creative director of her memoir ‘Face It,’ and it was like pulling teeth,” he laughed. “She doesn’t like to go back. And it’s funny because we keep toying with this idea of me directing a film about her - so that would be even harder!”
Just before the entourage’s landing in Cuba, there were expressed concerns about whether the residents of the communist country would even have had the ability to know who the band was.
“While we were going there, Debbie and I were discussing whether they even knew the music,” Roth recalled. “When I was shooting, at one point there was a balcony and a family – from the grandparents down to the grandchildren and: they were all singing. It was ‘Heart of Glass,’ or ‘The Tide is High.’ And they knew it. It was clear. The music had gotten there.”
“Blondie: Vivir en la Habana,” had its North American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2021. The Adirondack Film Festival, presented by ATF for the seventh year, ran Oct. 13-15 and presented its programming in a hybrid mode - both in-person and online – with live screenings at the Charles R. Wood Theater and Crandall Library in downtown Glens Falls.