Baked in the fiery heat of Cuban sunshine and alive with the hot-blooded energy of live music comes Blondie: Vivir En La Habana, a chic and daring documentary short constructed by New York City native Rob Roth. The film follows the iconic new-wave band Blondie as they participate in a four-day cultural exchange program facilitated by the Cuban Ministry of Culture to play their first-ever show on Cuban soil.
Fronted by the devilishly cool Debbie Harry, Blondie are best known for their vivacious underground aesthetic, trailblazing talents and rich discography. Songs such as ‘Call Me,’ ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ and ‘Heart of Glass’ launched the band into the mainstream, where they have remained for over forty years, demonstrating stylistic progression and artistic finesse with every album. Many consider the band to be one of the defining voices of punk and new-wave, but they have achieved this accolade through drawing from an eclectic mix of styles and genres such as rap, reggae, disco and pop. Roth’s film pays homage to Latin music, which, like Blondie, has always found a home on New York City’s animated streets, and captures the next step of the band’s illustrious journey as they fulfil their lifelong dream of playing a show in Havana.
With Blondie: Vivir En La Habana, Rob Roth, a homegrown multiplatform artist and established Blondie collaborator, constructs a palpable surrealist portrait of Havana from the perspective of his dear friend and inspiration Debbie Harry. However, missing from the image is Harry’s chief creative partner Chris Stein, who had to miss out on the trip due to medical complications. Speaking with Chris in New York and Debbie in Havana, Roth captures the profound interconnections between the two cities and draws parallel lines between two souls.
Fresh out of Tribeca Film Festival, Leoni Horton sits down with Rob Roth to discuss wrangling creative control from Debbie Harry, the language of music, and finding inspiration in Havana.
Film Hounds: I know you’ve been a long time friend and Blondie collaborator. Before we start, could you tell me a little bit about how you met the band and how this project came into being?
Rob Roth: This question always comes up, and we keep trying to figure it out. We met, I think, around almost thirty years ago. I met Deb first through this nightclub called Jackie Sixty, which was on Tuesday nights in the Meatpacking District. She would go there, and I would go there and eventually be became friends. Then, in 1999, Blondie asked me to work on their No Exit album, which was like the reformation of Blondie. Since then, it’s just been sporadic; I work on different things every so often. I usually don’t pitch ideas to them, but when the opportunity came for them to participate in this cultural exchange in Havana, I felt that we needed to document it. I didn’t know how we would do it, but I thought we really had to try.
FH: You can really tell from your footage just how important making this trip and playing this show was for Debbie and Chris. Why do you think that was? And why did it feel so important to capture in the form of this film?
RR: Well, I knew beforehand that Chris Stien had always wanted to go to Cuba; he’s been fascinated with it for almost his whole life. One of the things he told his manager when he first started working with him over ten years ago was, ‘Just get us to Cuba’. So, that’s why it’s so bittersweet that he couldn’t go in the end. I just thought about the significance of that personal dream. Plus, our relationship as countries is just not good. So, I thought that making the trip to Cuba was totally different than going to Brazil or somewhere like that. The only other place I can think to compare it to is like a communist country that the US doesn’t get along with—somewhere like North Korea, maybe. I was really curious to see if the music resonated there, which it did, but it felt like there was no other way of finding that out other than actually making the trip.
FH: Well, it’s fair to say that the US and Cuba have had a terse relationship for a long time now, which has only been further exacerbated by the Trump administration. Do you feel like this documentary is a rebellion against misconceptions that some people might still have about Cuba?
RR: Yes, I mean, I didn’t set out to make any kind of political or propaganda kind of thing at all. I keep saying that it’s really a document of two different cities rather than two different countries. I wanted to focus on the connection between these two different port cities that both serve as cultural hubs. However, there was definitely a timing thing because we wouldn’t have been able to go if it wasn’t for that tiny period when the Obama administration made it a little easier to travel to Cuba. Almost as soon as we got home, things changed again, and then a pandemic happened. Life gives you these little doorways sometimes, and you really have to be ready for them to show up. I think that sums up what this whole experience was—it was one of those lucky breaks. Actually, one of my favourite shots in the movie is this pair of dice hanging from the mirror in our car; I see it as really symbolic of the luck of the draw.
FH: I think one of the most intriguing things about this film was that it suggested almost a profound interconnection between Cuba and New York, which is aided by what Debbie calls ‘the language of music. Were you surprised at all by the reaction of the fans in Cuba to Blondie’s music, or did you head into this with a sense of what you were going to find there?
RR: It’s so funny because really I had no idea. They played two nights, and throughout the shows, I was running around with this Super 8 camera. Then, on the second night, I looked up to the balcony, and there was a huge family, and I’m not kidding, everyone was there – little kids, teenagers, parents and grandparents. I found it really emotionally striking because they were all singing along with Debbie. I just thought, God, this isn’t just something that Mum and Dad are interested in; it’s something that’s resonating with the whole family. They all knew the music and, I mean, logically, of course they did because Cuba is not that far from the United States. When you fly there, it’s like flying to Florida or something. It’s just that when you consider our mindset and all of the ways our countries differ, Cuba seems so foreign and so far away, when in reality, that just isn’t true at all.
FH: And so, do you feel as if Cuba crafted the film for you in a way? Or did you head into this with a specific idea of what you wanted to capture on film?
RR: Well, I had no idea really of what it was going to become. A documentary usually does that—it guides you. You go, and you try and capture the moment. However, I knew that I wanted to shoot it on real film and mix in digital footage of the live shows. So, that was pretty much a done deal for me in terms of the structure, but I really had no idea what it would become. The film revealed itself to us, and that’s why I split the film up into short chapters. Debbie started talking about water a lot; she was born near water, she’s a water sign, and for as long as I’ve known her, we have always made a thing of going to the beach and swimming in the ocean. So that’s what made me name the chapters after elements.
FH: From following Debbie Harry’s career, she seems like a woman with such a strong creative vision. Was it challenging to wrangle creative control from her, and, if not, did you feel pressure to impress her or match her artistic sensibilities?
RR: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know what she would say, but we’ve worked on enough projects together now that I can say that we have a very similar take on things. When I worked on her memoir – ‘Face It’ – she said to me at one point, ‘I trust you,’ so, I think she knows me well enough to know that I’m not going to make her look bad and that I can deliver what she thinks of as artistic merit. We actually go back and forth a lot; I mean, she approves everything, of course, but I don’t think we’ve ever clashed. Once in a while, she might say, ‘I don’t like that,’ but that’s fine because, you know what, she’s usually right.
FH: I wanted to ask you a little bit more about how you created such a vivid aesthetic. What appealed to you about shooting on 16mm and 8mm film, and why did you decide to introduce animation into the mix?
RR: We were supposed to shoot it on digital, then some of the funding dropped out. Then I – and this is another reason why Debbie and I get along so well because I have a real punk spirit – said, well fuck you, I’m going to shoot it on actual film. If you’re not going to give me the money, I’m just going to do this my way. Which is insane, but I wanted to do it. It’s funny because there are so many filters nowadays on Instagram and stuff like that, so most people will see the footage and assume we’ve used some sort of filter—but that’s not the case; it’s all real film. I realised that the 16mm and 8mm cameras are almost like a lens to another time or another dimension, so that’s why I used animation only within that footage. To me, it was like a portal to another dimension, idea and time. It made me question the concept of the invisible. What is music? What is inspiration? What is passion? What are these things that we all have in common? They are concepts that countries and borders can’t contain. That’s the invisible beauty of music, art, performance and the other unexplainable stuff. So, I guess that the animation represents those ideas that you can’t really see.
FH: Blondie have been a working band for over 40 years now, and they have such a rich musical history. As a filmmaker – why did it feel important to document the here and now rather than look back to the past?
RR: I don’t think that Debbie and Chris are interested in the past; I think they are more interested in what comes next or what is happening in the moment. I am too, and so the idea of a Blondie feature documentary doesn’t appeal to me. I’m more interested in experimental film, so perhaps I might consider the idea if I could present their history through an experimental lens. I know people love the old footage, but I’m just not interested in the cookie-cutter format of B-roll footage cut with talking heads. The idea doesn’t appeal to Debbie either; she finds that kind of film very generic.
FH: So, have you felt inspired by the process of making this film? Are you interested in capturing what comes next for Blondie?
RR: Yeah. I’m actually very early in the process, but I guess I could mention it. I’m toying with the idea of a feature-length what I suppose you could call a documentary, but I think of it as more of a portrait of Debbie. It would be kind of like the film version of her book. I’ve already started sketching it out, but we will see what comes of that. Wish me luck!
FH: And finally, Rob, what has the fan reaction been like so far? Do you feel any added pressure as a filmmaker, knowing that your subject already comes with a legion of people with an invested interest?
RR: You know, funny, I don’t. I know they’re adored, and I know that they are a legendary band, but I just try to enjoy the creative process. Plus, you know, I’m a fan! So I do what I would like to see as a fan. I mean, I do get e-mails from fans expressing love for the work we’ve done together, which is nice, but it doesn’t create pressure for me. With the book, we included a bunch of fan art that Debbie had collected over the years, and every time I look online, there’s just more and more cropping up. I love that. I love when the fans have their own interpretation of Debbie and the album covers, and if anything, I always feel very inspired by that.
Rob Roth’s Blondie: Vivir En La Habana played at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. Blondie’s official soundtrack album will be released on July 16th.