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Review: 'Carlos: The Santana Journey'

If there was ever a musical documentary that was overdue, it was Carlos: The Santana Journey, about Carlos Santana’s meteoric rise to the top of the music scene beginning with his legendary performance at the Woodstock Festival back in August of 1969.

It was a spectacular debut for a band whose first album had not yet been released.

Santana’s performance was one of the highlights of the concert—a performance for the ages. The intensity is palpable over a half century later. Carlos Santana’s screaming, fluid guitar riffs electrified the air that day captivating the half million festival attendees. The energy still sparks and resonates over a half century later.

But where did it all begin? And what led to the fusion of musical influences that forged Santana’s singular sound? It was a blend of the blues, African music, Mexican music, Tito Puente, B.B. King and God knows what else. A lot was tossed into the musical mixer that resulted in a style that defied definition and boundaries.

At the center of it was Carlos Santana, born in Mexico, whose father was a violinist in a Mariachi band. Carlos was encouraged to follow in his father’s footsteps and did so for a while until a guitar hanging in a music store window beckoned and Carlos found himself caught up in a magic spell that would alter the course of his life and career.

It led to the formation of a band and an unlikely encounter with Bill Graham from the Fillmore West, who recognized Carlos Santana’s immense talent and potential.

Not long afterward, Carlos was opening for some of the biggest bands of his generation.

And then came the appearance at Woodstock and the release of their first album. The rest, as they say is history.

There have been countless documentaries about famous musicians and legendary bands. They vary in terms of style, approach and success. One of the challenges is the need for archival footage of artists and bands early in their career, when often no one took notice of a future megaband’s rise to fame.

In the case of Carlos: The Santana Journey, Carlos had a routine of setting up a video camera to record himself playing his guitar in bedrooms and home studio spaces as he practiced, played and developed riffs for future songs and material. It became a video diary of sorts, charting his musical journey in a very private, personal way, rarely seen in documentaries like this.

Of course, there is Q&A footage of Carlos sitting outside, surrounded by nature on a calm evening chatting about his life story. He is open and honest about his humble beginnings and dreams of someday becoming famous. He recounts telling his friends that he would someday share the stage with his guitar gods like B.B. King and Eric Clapton. He recalled that they laughed. It only proved to strengthen his resolve.

Part of the narrative is shared with his two sisters and his current wife, sitting around a table reminiscing about Carlos and his formative years. The stories are heartfelt and often funny, like the time Carlos’ father and mother attended a concert and witnessed people in the audience passing around marijuana. No spoilers.

Of course, there are clips of Carlos Santana’s performances over the years covering numerous concerts, his appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show complete with an undulating psychedelic background, and of course, that famous appearance at Woodstock.

Carlos adds background and context to that performance by relating his encounter with Jerry Garcia who shared some mind-altering substances with Carlos just before Santana hit the stage. It’s both funny and frightening, with Carlos recalling that he imagined the neck of his Gibson SG guitar was a writhing snake in his hands during the performance.

The experience is a mind-blowing revelation that adds a whole other level of amazement when you watch the now-famous footage and the distorted expressions on Carlos Santana’s face, knowing what was flashing through his mind as he unleashed some of the most raw and powerful guitar solos of all time.

The documentary is revealing on other levels beyond the music scene. There are ugly memories involving racism and sexual abuse, including a psychologically scarring encounter that Santana painfully dredges up from his childhood—one that affected him most of his adult life.

Through it all, Carlos Santana never lost his way. In the guitar world, he was and is a giant.

You only need to hear a few notes of his guitar to know you are listening to Carlos Santana. Only a short list of legendary guitarists have created such an instantly recognizable style. It is the mark of a true artist who followed his heart and soul on a remarkable journey. One worth seeing, hearing and enjoying.

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