By Linda Barnard
A documentary about Canadian flamenco guitarist David Phillips. Directed by Max Montalvo. 69 minutes.
The richly textured, rhythmic sounds of flamenco weave through first-time director Max Montalvo’s El Payo, a documentary about late Canadian guitar virtuoso David Phillips.
But other music also comes to mind: George Harrison’s plaintiff “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Born in Kirkland Lake, Phillips was the unlikeliest of future guitar heroes, especially in an ancient style that was born in Andalucía among Gypsy musicians fleeing persecution during the Spanish Inquisition. The conceit that only a Gypsy can play the emotional flamenco — music born of suffering — leads to the title El Payo, Spanish for a non-Gypsy. It’s a word used to describe such gifted flamenco players as Phillips, people who don’t have a birthright to the music.
The movie is shot in unadorned documentary style, relying heavily on interviews with those who studied with or played alongside Phillips. The most familiar names will be classical guitarists Eli Kassner and Liona Boyd. Two of Boyd’s most-recognized flamenco songs, “Malagueña” and “Granada” were arranged for her by Phillips.
Solos by Phillips from Canadian TV archives are a testament to his skill, interspersed with passionate performances by flamenco dancers, singers and guitarists, most of whom live and work in Toronto. The deftness and musicianship of the guitar players is stunning to watch.
Spanish narration, subtitled in English, is provided by Mexico City native Montalvo, who is also an emergency room physician in Kingston. He acted as writer, sometime cameraman and producer on the project. Did he also make the coffee? The English voiceover work is handled by Tragically Hip guitarist Rob Baker, who also helped produce the film.
While their task is clearly a labour of love and the result a film that will delight flamenco fans, that doesn’t necessarily make for great filmmaking. Despite a tidy time of just 69 minutes, the doc lags occasionally and lacks a sense of flow.
But two elements stand out and make El Payo and are worthy mentions.
Armed with a used Beaulieu Super-8 camera he brought off the Internet, Montalvo shot grainy black-and-white footage of the streets of cities in Andalucía, his camera seeming to float along cobblestone streets, picking up glowing streetlamps and scenes of music fans drinking and clapping along to flamenco in ancient squares. It gives us a glimpse into what Phillips may have seen there in the 1950s and ’60s when he first discovered flamenco in its natural state and the footage is hypnotic.
And then there’s the story of how Phillips once backed his car over his beloved guitar, taking the smashed pieces to a repair shop in a paper bag and asking that his adored instrument be put together again. It was fixed and he became famous for his horribly battered “Frankenstein” guitar that still had such a sweet sound
Revered as a teacher and famous for his skill, Phillips began drinking heavily when he suffered repeated bouts of psoriasis that made it impossible for him to play. Divorced, broke and without his cherished music, he grew sicker and more frail, dying in 2002.
That Toronto has a well-tended flamenco culture won’t come as much of a surprise: we’re a city that explores the art forms of all the varied people who live here. But that one of the best the world, and an el payo, lived and played in Toronto for decades may be. It’s heartbreaking that Phillips’ story isn’t one of triumph, but ultimately one that ends in tragedy.