Jose Feliciano: Behind His Guitar
By Jennifer Ersalesi
Films that tell stories about inspirational individuals who overcome many struggles to finally realize their dreams have the ability to touch and inspire audiences. It takes talent and determination to capture those stories on screen. Rutherford resident, Frank Licari, did not allow the pandemic to crush his dream of creating a film to tell Jose Felciano’s story. This is Rutherford interviewed Frank Licari to learn more about this challenging process, his relationship with Jose Feliciano, and the film premiere.
TIR: The documentary that you wrote and directed with Helen Murphy, “Jose Feliciano: Behind His Guitar" made its NYC premiere on September 2nd. How long have you been working on this project?
Frank Licari: We actually started the filming back in 2018 and worked on it for two years but with the pandemic hitting when it did, we stopped the sales process. We were supposed to make our debut in March 2020 at the famous SXSW film festival in Austin, but the festival was canceled so we picked everything back up at the beginning of this year.
TIR: What was it like to work with the legendary Jose Feliciano?
FL: Well, I have kind of a unique story as I’ve actually known Jose for eleven years and we’ve become good friends. I toured with him in 2012/2013 as his tour producer/director and backup singer. We went all over the world together: South Korea, South, and Central America, the Canary Islands, Australia, Canada, and throughout the US. Getting to tell his story in this fashion was a great privilege and honor.
TIR: Why is Feliciano’s story so inspiring?
FL: It's an incredible story of resilience and determination. Being blind since birth, growing up poor in Puerto Rico, and then moving to Spanish Harlem at the age of 5 as an “immigrant” not speaking the English language, Jose was faced with many obstacles and roadblocks. However, he didn’t let those things stop him from finding his place in the world and carving out his own identity. Music became his first love, his true friend, and his most consistent companion. Not only did he go on to catapult himself to the top of the global music scene, but he became a family man and raised a family. It’s a beautiful story of never letting excuses stop you from becoming who you want to be and who you truly are.
TIR: What were the most exciting parts of working on this documentary?
FL: Well, whenever you tackle a story so precious and rich as the life of someone like Jose, you discover little nuggets that you didn’t anticipate. As familiar as I was with Jose and his career, some of the wonderful story and plot points that were uncovered were exciting, his incredible overseas performances, his influence on so many great artists, and his legendary friendships. Of course, getting to interview and meet the incomparable Carlos Santana as well as Gloria and Emilio Estefan was quite a remarkable privilege as well. Great people that were so welcoming and so talented.
TIR: Were there challenges you faced while filming this documentary?
FL: As an independent filmmaker and producer, every time you make any sort of project, there are great challenges, whether it’s struggling with financing, trying to get shooting schedules to cooperate, the participation of everyone involved, etc. Of course, with a music documentary, you also have the challenges of licensing all the music. Jose is an artist that has covered and interpreted such great artists as The Doors, The Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas and so many more. It’s very difficult to get permission and licensing to use all that music, not to mention the financial burden involved. Honestly, the fact that this movie was completed, let alone received as well as it has been, is nothing short of a miracle.
TIR: Why are you excited for audiences to finally get to see this film?
FL: Well, the whole goal of this documentary was to show the world the Jose Feliciano that they didn’t know. Not just the man known for Feliz Navidad or Light My Fire, but the man who was an influence on so many performers, the man who inspired every Latino performer that came after him, the man who had an incredible global career, and the man who is a true American icon. Surprisingly, many people only know him as a folk singer and don’t even realize how incredible of a guitarist he is and was. Jimi Hendrix called him one of the greatest guitarists he’d ever seen. That’s saying something. There’s so much about Jose that people don’t know, even his fans, so it’s exciting to hear the comments after they watch the film.
TIR: Jose Feliciano and his family were at the premiere, which must have been really exciting. What can you tell us about their reaction?
FL: Well, as I said, I’ve been close with Jose and his family since 2011 and they have been incredible partners of ours throughout this whole process. They were a wealth of knowledge and information and assisted us in contacting many of the important individuals you see in the story. So, they’ve been along the journey with us from the beginning. They absolutely love the film and are thrilled with the response so far.
TIR: The documentary has received excellent reviews. How are you feeling about the reviews?
FL: Again, as any independent filmmaker will tell you, anytime you can get your film shown is a miracle let alone get reviewed and favorably at that. I’m ecstatic about the reviews. Everyone has had such positive feedback on it. Obviously, having the Angelika Theater in NYC agree to run the film for weeks was its own stamp of approval; they’re the number one independent movie house in the country. It’s been very humbling.
TIR: As of right now, the film is only being presented at certain theaters. Will it be available in other locations? Where can audiences watch this amazing story?
FL: Well, the film has been running the film festival circuit all year and premiered in a few key markets including stops in Miami, New York, Madrid, Melbourne, Santa Barbara, Nashville, Austin, Buenos Aires, and many more. I’m happy to say that the film is going to be distributed on a major streaming platform at the end of this month. Although I can’t spill the beans right now, it should be public in the next few weeks. We’ve also enlisted the help of an international sales agent who will be bringing to the world outside the US.
TIR: Anyone special you would like to thank?
FL: I want to give a special shout-out to our first-time editor, Paul Jaigua who did an amazing job on this picture. He and I spent many late nights and early mornings together as well as long-distance phone calls to get this story where it is. I actually produced and directed the majority of this film while I was taking care of my younger brother in Canada who was battling cancer. Paul stuck by me and worked tirelessly to make it all work so that I could provide timely edits for my producing/directing partner Helen to see and keep the schedule on track. Paul and I were in the trenches together piecing this film together and I’m glad that he’s getting the accolades as well.
Side note: My younger brother has since passed away after his three-year battle with cancer and I personally am dedicating the completion of this film to him. He was there for every step of it, and I would sometimes let him see some of what I was editing in his hospital room and get his opinion. I really wish he was around to see the finished product come to fruition.
To learn more about Frank Licari, click here.