Movie review: Carlos

keep a demon under control

Before I review the new documentary, Carlos, here is a little personal history. I had asked one of my parents, probably my father, if I could go to the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in Bethel, NY, in August 1969. He said no, and that was that. How was I to know that it would become WOODSTOCK?

So when the movie came out in the spring of 1970, a large group of friends and I saw it. Because, back in the day, we could, we then watched it again.

Some artists I knew, but not Santana, though Evil Ways had just hit the Top 10 nationally in March 1970. I was mesmerized by Soul Sacrifice. But I never knew why the lead guitarist seemed to be grimacing so much until I saw the new film.

The Dead

As the Variety review notes: “Carlos arrived at Woodstock by helicopter, and the first thing he encountered there was Jerry Garcia (who he knew from the Fillmore), extending an open hand with some pills in it. Carlos wasn’t scheduled to go on for many hours, so he figured he’d take the pills, and they would wear off.

“The next thing he knew, the Woodstock announcer, with that deep voice, was introducing Santana. Carlos stepped onstage out of his mind on acid… The film shows those clips, and Carlos, looking back, explains to us what was happening: He thought the neck of his guitar had turned into a writhing snake, one he was literally wrestling so that he could subdue it enough to play. What the whole world saw was a guitarist on pure electric fire. What Carlos was doing was trying to keep a demon under control.”

That’s just one interesting segment in the film, which I saw with my wife, at her suggestion, at the Spectrum Theatre in Albany recently. The doc starts with a tease of Oye Como Va, familiar yet rendered new.


Carlos was a poor kid born in Mexico. His father, a mariachi musician, taught his son how to play the violin. Eventually, Carlos had to tell his father, whom he adored, that the guitar was a better fit for him.

The family moved to San Francisco. A tape recording of Carlos from 1966, when he was 19, showed how remarkably good he was. There is also some great footage of the Fillmore with Bill Graham, Garcia, Joe Cocker, and others. Graham made sure that Carlos and his band played at the Fillmore steadily, either as the warm-up group or the headliner, when the scheduled artist failed to show. I liken it to when The Beatles played nearly daily in Hamburg, Germany, in the early 1960s and became solid musically.

BTW, Abraxas, the second album, remains my favorite, especially the segue of Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen. It was also his best-selling album until 1999.

  The movie delves into the masking of the album Supernatural, and Clive Davis’ part in that process, which was responsible for eight Grammys, including for Smooth, the single featuring Rob Thomas.


Two things jumped out throughout the film. Carlos’ spiritual journey is quite evident. After successful albums, he abandoned the rock motif for a time and became a disciple of the Indian spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy. I have an album with Carlos and John McLaughlin.

His disdain for musical collaborators who aren’t committed to the music is legendary, which is why there have been some three dozen members of the band Santana over the years.

He had two children with his first wife, Deborah King (m. 1973-2007), and both are inclined toward music.

In some ways, the storytelling was Carlos and his sisters sharing his story to Carlos’ second wife, Cindy Blackman, who, not incidentally, is Santana’s touring drummer. He proposed to her on stage during a concert in Illinois in July 2010, and they married in Hawaii five months later.

The documentary received 100% positive reviews from 17 Rotten Tomatoes reviews and was 94% positive with audiences. Carlos, directed by Rudy Valdez, is recommended.

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