“Carlos” has one of the best openings I’ve ever seen — or heard — in a music documentary. We hear Carlos Santana, waxing philosophical and wise (as he’s prone to do). Intercut with his words, at throbbing intervals of about 20 seconds (and at top volume), are the iconic organ-and-bass notes — BOM BOM!…BOM BOM! — that open “Oye Como Va,” the 1971 hit by Santana. I’ll confess that “Oye Como Va” is one of those classic-rock radio staples I feel like I’ve heard more times in my life than I ever need to. (Sort of like “Moondance” and “Tempted” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”) Yet “Carlos,” instead of assaulting you with the song, severs those four notes from it (BOM BOM!…BOM BOM!) and blows them up into a piece of pop art, like a Warhol sound painting. It asks us to hear the magic of what Carlos Santana did by reveling in the sonic texture, the Latin-gone-psychedelic moxie of those notes.
They have a life force, and that’s the story “Carlos” tells. Built around an extended interview with Carlos Santana, who at 75 is spry and rueful and funny and confessional, Rudy Valdez’s documentary presents Santana’s life and career in a straightforward way, but that doesn’t explain why the film is so enthralling.
Santana, as we discover, had a very different arc than other rock stars. Born in Jalisco, Mexico, he grew up in one of the most impoverished sections of Tijuana, with a father who was a mariachi musician (he taught Carlos how to play the violin). What the film shows us is that Carlos approached life and music with a religious reverence he never lost. He worshipped his father, even though he was a philanderer, and his mother too (he swore to her that one day he’d buy her a house). The family moved to San Francisco, and we hear a tape recording of Carlos from 1966, when he was starting to play in bands, and his guitar soloing is already extraordinary — he’s like B.B. King on a Haight-Ashbury bender.
What was there in Santana’s music from the start, and what never left (you hear it in those notes from “Oye Como Va”), was an electrified faith, a belief in life that he poured into his fusion of rock ‘n’ roll and Latin jazz and the blues and…that ineffable Santana thing. In the late ’60s, when Santana was a skinny good-looking kid with a mustache, hanging around Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium (because everyone under the counterculture sun played there), he won attention for his skills and was tapped to go onstage as part of a Sunday afternoon fill-in set. His description of that experience is surreal (he was a nobody suddenly thrust into being a rock star), and that mirrored what happened next, as Santana put his first band together and became a staple at the Fillmore, the only band to play there that didn’t have a recording contract. They were just locals too incendiary to ignore.
Audiences got addicted to them — to the sound and fury of Santana’s attack. But it was Woodstock that elevated him to the big leagues, and the story he tells in “Carlos” about that performance is one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll anecdotes I’ve ever heard. 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. We’ve all seen Santana in the “Woodstock” movie, playing “Soul Sacrifice” — the driving beat, the thrashing-drums-and pumping-organ intensity, topped by Carlos’ extended soloing, as articulate in its fury as Hendrix’s. He also makes some very ugly rock-overbite faces. 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.
It was sheer karmic coincidence that Santana’s self-titled first album, recorded for Columbia Records (the band had been signed by Clive Davis), was scheduled to be released just one week after Woodstock. It spent more than two years on the Billboard 200 chart, and while its success was driven by the single “Evil Ways,” more than half the album was instrumental, and that was its essence. Rolling Stone panned it by calling it “a speed freak’s delight — fast, pounding, frantic music with no real content,” which in hindsight sounds like a compliment. The content of Santana’s music was its Latin hellfire vibe, its propulsive majesty.
Launched into the ’70s, Carlos Santana had as idiosyncratic — and committed — an odyssey as any musician of his time. Early on, driven by the success of “Santana” and “Abraxas,” he lived the rock-star dream. But Carlos turned out to be something of an ascetic, and that guided his career in several ways. The members of Santana, the band, kept shifting; Carlos was the only constant. And in the mid-’70s, he basically renounced the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle by becoming a white-suited disciple of the Indian spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy, who also counted Mahavishnu Orchestra founder John McLaughlin among his followers. The first rock concert I ever went to was the Santana/McLaughlin tour — a cascade of intertwined guitar rapture, and still the loudest concert I’ve ever heard.
“Carlos,” like just about every music doc these days, is not exactly a warts-and-all portrait. When Carlos talks about how he did buy his mother a house, it’s presented as a moment of the purest crowd-pleasing triumph. Yet he was also angry at his mother for not protecting him. Late in the movie, Santana recalls the sexual molestation he suffered at the hands of a local predator, and we see more clearly than ever that his musical faith isn’t severed from pain. It’s built on a rejection of it.
“Carlos” provides a just intimate enough glimpse of who Santana was and is offstage. He devoted himself to raising his family; in that spirit, he tells us that music is what he does, not who he is. But we can see that it’s both. At home, Santana likes to make solo video recordings of himself, usually with no shirt on, improvising on the guitar with backing tracks. Watching these rec-room noodlings, you see that he’s someone who literally breathes music. That’s part of what made his extraordinary comeback, in 1999, with “Supernatural” feel so organic. The guitar soloing that lifted “Smooth,” his collaboration with Matchbox Twenty singer Rob Thomas, to the heavens wasn’t that different from the guitar soloing he did on acid at Woodstock in 1969. But 30 years later, he didn’t have to work so hard to tame the snake.