Biopics are a strange beast. Yes, we all like having a behind-the-scenes look at real-life notable figures, but biopics can also make for wholly unsatisfying movie-watching experiences. Too often, filmmakers’ attempts at drawing a traditional three-act structure from the entirety of a subject’s life results in an off-putting, uneven, oddly-paced jumble of a film that never really feels like it takes off and never really feels like it ends where it should. This is especially true for musical biopics, where the story beats tend to feel a bit familiar, and so running through them can be a bit of a chore.
Lorena Muñoz’s new film El Potro, Lo Mejor del Amor, about the life of the wildly popular Cuarteto singer Rodrigo Bueno, serves as a follow-up to her excellent 2016 biopic Gilda, No Me Arrepiento De Este Amor. One could call them sister films to each other, as they each deal with the lives of emblematic figures in Argentine music who died untimely deaths. But while the Gilda film is a truly charming, often deeply moving story, El Potro doesn’t quite measure up. Whether this comes down to the inherent likability of either artist is something that could be up for debate. I tend to believe that it comes down to a difference in their approach to each story, and the filmmakers’ understanding of each artist’s narrative arc.
It would be a bit of an understatement to say I was disappointed in El Potro. The trailer did an amazing job of conveying the kind of powerful, dramatic, high-octane scramble for artistic fulfillment that I desperately wanted the film to be. If there ever was a musician in Argentina’s history whose life story you wouldn’t expect to feel like a desultory checklist of life events, it would be Rodrigo, whose magnetic charm and rambunctious energy brought an almost anarchistic edge to every song and performance. And in fact, said performances are where this film really shines, with each musical scene feeling true to the spirit of a live show, effectively conveying Rodrigo’s charisma, passion and unpredictability. It is in the nooks and crannies of the actual story where El Potro kind of falls apart.
The film follows Rodrigo’s life, from his beginnings as a pop singer in Cordoba, through his early attempts at stardom, his struggles through a devastating loss, and finally becoming a superstar, effectively bringing the Cuarteto genre to the mainstream. The film tackles his tumultuous relationships with various women, his attempts to be the man his parents want him to be, and the devastating effects of his spiraling drug addiction. Rodrigo Romero does a truly wonderful job with the titular role, as he convincingly portrays El Potro’s evolution from a wide-eyed young man to a manic, aggressive, somewhat terrifying slave to his own vices. Another standout cast member is Fernán Mirás, who delivers an empathetic performance as Rodrigo’s loyal, long-suffering manager.
From an aesthetic viewpoint, the film is a stunner; production design and cinematography work together to make this a truly beautiful film to look at, with several scenes that are loaded with powerful visual poetry and grandiosity, sometimes painting Rodrigo as an almost religious figure. In fact, my favorite scene in the entire movie might be the very opening, which is little more than a slow-motion traveling shot of Rodrigo walking up to the stage at Luna Park. The way the scene is staged, shot, edited and scored gives it a tremendously powerful feeling of drama, myth, and triumph. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to that glorious moment.
What I found myself most frustrated by with El Potro was its inability to dig deeper. The way that information is conveyed to the audience felt inconsistent and almost perfunctory at times; sometimes, a scenario will play out (say, for example, Rodrigo shows up to meet his manager and is told that he “fucked it all up” by disappearing for 3 days) and the audience is left scratching their heads, attempting to figure out what happened (given that we had no prior knowledge of Rodrigo having gone missing). Often it feels like the movie actively turns away from conversations that we, as an audience, really want to hear. Instead, we’re left feeling like maybe we missed something.
And despite Romero’s powerful performance, I am left without a clear impression of Rodrigo’s motivations or personality. We know he is playful, we know he is routinely unfaithful, and we know he is a man of appetites. But besides merely seeing him engage in all these behaviors, we have no real insight as to what drives them. Perhaps due to the inherent complications in cramming a life’s story into an acceptable running time, director Lorena Muñoz doesn’t dive as deep into Rodrigo’s psyche as I would have wanted. This plays against the entire movie, and makes it feel that much more like a weirdly-paced slog.
Here’s the thing: El Potro tries. Its shortcomings aren’t the result of a lack of care, passion or interest; the cast and crew are clearly giving it their all, and attempting to tell Rodrigo’s story to the best of their abilities. The issues here are a fundamentally flawed approach to storytelling, and a serious lack of clarity regarding both the thematic through-line of the film and its main character’s motivation. We never really get a true sense of what the film is about, or what Rodrigo actually wants. We are told, early on in the film and in very plain terms, that he just wants to sing and be famous. Okay. But why? What is this burning need inside of him? What exactly is he trying to prove, and to whom? And what are the filmmakers attempting to convey or illuminate by showing us this? Without some sense of purpose to the journey we are taking as audience members, the film is basically just A Bunch Of Things That Happen. For a film that desperately needs us to care about its lead character and his quest, this is a fatal flaw.
It’s very frustrating, because the pieces were all there for this to have been an incredible movie. Strong aesthetic choices, a remarkable cast, vibrant performances, a story that was ripe for drama and pathos. Ultimately, it was all squandered on a film that wasn’t bad, but something much worse: bland, lukewarm, and forgettable. Everything that Rodrigo himself wasn’t. At the end of my screening, there was a beat of uncomfortable silence before somebody yelled out a “vamo’ Rodrigo carajo!” and the audience exploded in rapturous applause. I got the sense that the applause wasn’t for the film itself, but for Rodrigo Bueno: a profoundly meaningful figure in Argentine culture, being given his due in this film, elevated into the pantheon of all-time greats, and presented to the international stage. Such a shame that it was done so clumsily. He deserved better, and so did the audience.