Q&A: George Rivera, Director of "Tito Puente: The King of Latin Music"

September 22, 2009

“Tito Puente: The King of Latin Music” explores the life and career of one of the most recognizable names in the history of Latin music, the percussionist and bandleader Tito Puente. Inside THIRTEEN spoke with producer and director George Rivera about his documentary. “Tito Puente: The King of Latin Music” airs on THIRTEEN Thursday, September 24 at 8 pm and Friday, September 25 at 1:30 am.

Q: Did you know Tito Puente personally? How did you get involved in doing this film?

Tito was an acquaintance, though I did not know him well, and he was familiar with my work as a producer and director. Over a period of time, others had asked to do a biographic film and he always refused. Eventually, through a mutual friend, he let it be known that he would do one with me.

Q: So what was Tito Puente like off the stage? What kind of access did you have to him?

For Tito, being off-stage was very much an extension of being on-stage.
He was lots of fun and at the same time a real leader. He was a member of the community, who cared very much about his family and where he came from. He was an ordinary guy: He didn’t project “star” or was a prima donna, and he didn’t expect or ask people to treat him like one. He was very cooperative. We had complete access. Tito made himself available before, after and during performances.

Q: Tito Puente and his music is beloved all over the world – was there a lot of pressure in how you approached the film?

I don’t think there was any pressure except what was self-imposed to get the story right and give the music the respect that it deserved.

Q: Tito Puente passed away in 2000 while you were making the film; what challenges did you face as you finished the film without him?

Originally, we had planned to travel with him to Europe later that year and to record much more footage. We had no idea that the interview that we did with him in San Juan and the performance recorded that evening would be his last. When Tito died a few weeks later, we had to think quickly and change the scope of the project. Fortunately, so many celebrities who knew and admired Tito, as well as his family members, were willing to step up and be interviewed. In the wake of his loss, everyone felt such a tribute was important, and we were able to get the documentary done fairly quickly.