‘Siempre, Luis’: Film Review | Sundance 2020

John James’ ‘Siempre, Luis’ profiles Puerto Rico-born New Yorker Luis Miranda, a political player with a son named Lin-Manuel.

A father-son balancing act that never finds a satisfactory equilibrium, John James’ debut doc Siempre, Luis introduces a man, Luis Miranda, whose career as a political power broker would, in some quarters, be considered deserving of a documentary. But this film knows its best shot at attracting viewers lies elsewhere: in Miranda’s efforts to mount a Puerto Rico benefit production of the blockbuster musical Hamilton, which happens to have been created by his son Lin-Manuel. While the younger Miranda will be largely (if not exclusively) responsible for any draw the film has on the festival circuit, there’s not a whole lot here for Hamilton-heads to see. Ultimately, while Luis Miranda is depicted as a key figure in steering the increasingly important Latino vote in New York and elsewhere, and the effort to bring money to a disaster-struck Puerto Rico clearly was close to his heart, the film spreads itself too thin to offer a thorough political portrait. It will be most valuable to those hungry for narratives of Puerto Ricans who have made lives for themselves on the mainland without forgetting where they came from.

After an introduction that witnesses a protest at the University of Puerto Rico, where some object to the way Broadway glitz and humanitarian needs intersect (“Our lives are not your theater,” one banner reads), Luis Miranda recalls his own time at that university in the ’70s, when he says he was always protesting something or other. Having grown up in a “known family” in his small town, Miranda had a scholarly bent, and intended to study law before he stumbled across an NYU program encouraging Puerto Ricans to move to New York.

The Bottom Line

Genial doc probably won’t leave either political junkies or ‘Hamilton’ fans very satisfied.

James pulls out a wealth of vintage footage to depict the scene Miranda found in Nueva York — music, street life and motivated neighborhood activists. He began doing community work in Washington Heights (the namesake of his son’s In the Heights), and found himself getting a job interview with then-New York Mayor Ed Koch. As Miranda recalls it, Koch welcomed his frankness about issues they disagreed on and made him his head of Latino affairs.

Miranda went on to help found the Hispanic Federation; Nydia Velazquez, who represents New York’s 7th District in Congress and is also from Puerto Rico, says his work there was crucial in establishing how important it was for politicians to court Latino voters. Soon he was working on campaigns for Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton.

The doc’s narrative of Miranda’s trajectory through powerful positions is about as superficial as the above summary suggests. If anybody out there has a negative thing to say about Miranda or how he built his clout, James doesn’t know him; the film doesn’t even mention the lobbying firm, the MirRam Group, he co-founded in 2000.

We jump ahead to September 2017, when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. From this point, James splits focus between two obviously related subjects: Miranda’s family life and his efforts to use his son’s musical for disaster relief. Having gone half an hour without discussing Lin-Manuel’s career, James gives the younger man the spotlight for a while, including a clip in which he previewed a song from the in-progress Hamilton at a White House event for the Obamas.

The playwright says he always knew he wanted to bring the play to his father’s home island; natural disaster only changed his timeline. We hear much about the logistical challenges of mounting a major Broadway production in a university venue with hurricane damage, and, eventually, we learn of the union disputes that to some made this charity event look like the bad guy.

Luis responds to the resulting protests like a man who has spent his life in political trenches. Puerto Ricans have been stepped on so much, he says, many are no longer able to “calibrate” their response to controversies; every new problem is a call to arms.

Controversy or not, the show did go on. Though the play’s fans will be disappointed at how little they see here, the point for the Mirandas is the $15 million the production reportedly raised for reconstruction efforts.

Production company: York Square Pictures
Director: John James
Screenwriters: Raul Santos, John James, Carlos Garcia de Dios, Luis Alvarez y Alvarez
Producers: Katie Taber, John James, Carlos Garcia de Dios
Executive producer: Michael Stolper
Director of photography: Carlos Garcia de Dios
Editor: Luis Alvarez Y Alvarez
Composer: Joe Wong
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Special Events)
Sales: Kevin Iwashina, Endeavor Content

94 minutes