For those not already familiar with the life of poet-playwright and legend Miguel Piñero (1948-88), director Leon Ichaso’s film will be a slightly bewildering experience. This fictionalized biography narrates Piñero’s painful odyssey through the prisons, theaters and underground scenes of New York without laying down much in the way of a coherent timeline. It’s as if his brief but dazzling stay on Earth were cut into pieces, thrown into a hat, shaken and scattered onto the screen, with some of the most important points of reference left out.
As played by Benjamin Bratt (of “Law & Order” fame), Piñero is a brilliant and seductive writer whose ability to express New York-Puerto Rican (Nuyorican) reality develops side by side with a truly suicidal consumption of booze and drugs. Bratt transforms his perennial handsome cool into a lower-depths machismo that’s equal parts wise-ass philosopher and devil-may-care lover man, while giving us an occasional glimpse inside a terrified, abandoned child of our time.
Piñero’s don’t-give-a-fuck approach to fame, fortune or his own health and safety left those around him dumbfounded and often furious. There were times when even his intimate friend and confidant, Nuyorican poet Miguel Algarin (Giancarlo Esposito), or the woman who loved him through it all, Sugar (the stunning Talisa Soto), seemed ready to call the whole thing off — but never could.
Ichaso (Sugar Hill) gives us a lot — including scenes of young Mikey with his mom (the glorious Rita Moreno) and siblings after they’ve been abandoned by his father. There’s Piñero in prison rehearsing Short Eyes, the play that would eventually catapult him to notoriety, then jousting emotionally with his producer-benefactor, Joseph Papp (Mandy Patinkin). And always there’s Piñero on the streets with his destitute friends, flying and crashing with them, living and dying with them.
But the director also withholds a great deal, perhaps from the conviction that no one who loved Piñero knew what drove him to self-destruction. Most frustrating are the elliptical, all-too-brief sequences in which Algarin, Piñero and friends founded the Nuyorican Poets Café on New York’s Lower East Side. That pivotal moment of political and cultural self-determination deserves a much fuller treatment.
The closing sequence, depicting a memorial poetry reading after Piñero’s death, includes performances by real-life poets Miguel Algarin, Amiri Baraka, Pedro Pietri and Jamal Joseph, but unless you already know who they are — or bother to wait for the credits to roll — you’ll be left in the dark. It’s just one more opaque brushstroke in an otherwise compelling portrait.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected].