La Movida 4Ever: Penélope, Almodóvar and Mecano

Penélope Cruz is the first Spanish actress nominated for an Oscar, and, better yet, she's been nominated for a Spanish film, Volver. Whatever her Hollywood ambitions, or Hollywood's ambitions for her, Cruz proves in her role of the spunky Raimunda that, like director Pedro Almodóvar, she is forever from and of Madrid, and by extension, the surrounding Castilian provinces often called La España profunda, (deep Spain, though this is as much a state of mind as a locale) where the movie takes place. Born in San Sebastián de los Reyes, outside of Madrid, Cruz left school at 15 to study dance, landing in the city at the center of the '80s cultural explosion known as La Movida, the spirit of which is so perfectly represented by Almodóvar in his brilliant early films.

Cruz's very first role was in a video for a song by Spanish pop stars Mecano. See it on YouTube here:

It was the 1980s, in the early days of Spain 's post-Franco democracy, and Mecano's music together with the films of Almodóvar would soon emerge as the country's biggest exports, signaling to the world it had awoken from its (pop) cultural slumber. The brothers Nacho and José María Cano and breathy-voiced singer Ana Torroja came up from the erupting underground with a sound that appealed to everyone from tots to abuelas. Most of all, their songs became anthems of adolescence, and as seen in this video, their energy came from the streets of Madrid.

La Gran Via is the closest thing Madrid has to Broadway, and these days its hottest ticket is “Hoy No Me Puedo Levantar”, a musical produced by Nacho Cano featuring the songs of Mecano (at three and a half hours, that’s a lot of Mecano songs). Last month, I saw the show. It's not about Mecano as such, but a quasi-fictional band with a parallel story. And most of all, it's a nostalgia vehicle for the free-spirited days of La Movida, with a cautionary lament for the casualties of the excesses of drugs, sex and success. To sum it up, "Hoy" is like a Spanish version of "Rent," with the kind of burlesque humor Spanish-language TV is known for and some extravagant production numbers worthy of Cirque de Soleil.

Here's the opening monologue by the show's lead character, Mario (could be Cruz or Almodóvar):
"Once upon a time there was a city that wanted to change color, a date filled of promise, a guy who was pumped with dreams. The city was Madrid, the date, 1981, and the guy was me. For me, a small town kid, living in the city meant living in a place where dreams could come true. Instead of pastures there were bars and concerts; instead of farmers, photographers and filmmakers; and instead of silence there was music."

Some of the action takes place at Rockola, Madrid's storied and most decadent rock club. I used to hang out there in those years, when I was a student. I don't remember a lot from those nights, but there's a memory of ripping my favorite Trash & Vaudeville pants and skinning my knee while running to dance to "Rock the Casbah." Almodóvar and his gang hung out in the balcony, an every night orgy of Lycra and hairspray. He sometimes performed there too, with his band McNamara & Almodóvar. Here, courtesy of YouTube and Television Española, the film director, in thrift store drag, sings about how he's going to be a mother who'll teach is kid how to live from prostitution and kill. Hilarious, and I love the stage set up and the shopping bags from El Corte Inglés.

Almodóvar, of course, has mellowed since those days, at least in public. My husband and I happened to be sitting a few seats a way from him on the plane home from Madrid. Almodóvar was on his way to the Golden Globes, though according to the Spanish press, he later caught a nasty cold and couldn't attend. He and his entourage, not a colored wig among them, were quietly reading scripts and chatting with the flight attendants. Maybe not wanting to let us down, Almodóvar did show a little silliness once we landed at JFK: When one of the flights attendants came down the aisle looking for the owner of a very girlie-girl coat, he shot up his hand, calling, "oh that's MINE!" Gotta love him.

Mecano split in 1993 - by then the brothers Cano reportedly couldn't stand to be in the same room with each other - though they came back together to record some new tracks for the album Ana, Jose, Nacho in 1998. But, as proved by "Hoy No Me Puedo Levantar" and discovered by a new generation, Mecano are unquestionably a classic and maybe as popular as ever. Arthur Hanlon, Latin pop pianist du jour, recently recorded an album of Mecano instrumentals, which worked out better than you might think.

And a Mexican version of "Hoy No Me Puedo Levantar" has premiered, with the story changed to take place in Mexico City. It wouldn't be surprising to see a film coming soon. How about it Penélope?