What are the highs and lows of “Our Last Tango” as a documentary versus a performance record?


Our Last Tango (2015) will tell audiences a wonderful story about one of the dance style’s most influential couples, Maria Nieves and Juan Carlos Copes. It will engage and delight with exceptionally bold choreography and a unique stylistic structure unlike any other documentary film. It will spark the imagination and draw on emotions, much like the tango itself. And it will tell a somber but decisively not maudlin tale of its subjects’ robust and dissolved love affair, sustained through a passion for tango.

This relationship-focused angle mirrors the art of tango’s power: after all, it takes two. And if any dance style’s story can be told through the lens of intense human emotion and interpersonal turmoil, it’s tango.

But what it will not do is what documentaries traditionally do: provide history, information, and context. It won’t educate the viewer about tango itself, or exactly what the profiled couple did that was so innovative. It’s clear that they are fantastic and had impressionable impact on tango culture, but what isn’t clear is exactly how that impact came to be. Are these things to which the film should have given more attention? Not necessarily. But regular lay-people unfamiliar with tango, unaware of Nieves and Copes, might yearn for a little more meat about the dance itself to better appreciate the couple.

Noted by Kenneth Morefield of Patheos, “One can hardly fault the Copes’ for not being as expressive with their words as they are through their art. Or for not having as much footage to provide as the younger generation. As a documentary profile, the film is just so-so. But as a performance record, it is a blast. Even if you know next to nothing about dance–I can tell it is tango by the music, though I’ve never danced a step–you can sense instinctively that you are in the presences of elite artists”

None of this is a knock. Our Last Tango an absolutely engaging documentary, and it sets out to tell the story of the couple’s relationship and convey their unbridled passion for dance. In that, it’s a complete success and one of the most innovative documentaries in a while. But as noted, it’s not going to teach anyone anything about tango. For instance, we find out that Copes created the “Copes method” of teaching Tango, but don’t really find out what that is. Juan Copes was an obsessive, driven, talented man who wouldn’t rest until he got to the top - and that’s exactly what happened. But how? We’re frequently reminded that despite the couple’s personal issues with each other, neither was ever able to find a partner better than the other. Why not? These questions don’t need answered for the film to reach its goal, but may leave the less artistically-minded viewer in the dark.

Still, as the Toronto International Film Festival’s website describes it, “we get a sense of two people with very different personalities and expectations. They had trouble communicating in their marriage, but onstage they had a synchronicity that mesmerized the world. They’re still dancing, even as octogenarians, only no longer together. Our Last Tango explores what it means to pursue your passion, and how crucial it is to find the right partner.” To that, the film is brilliant. Art isn’t always about facts and details, it’s about spirit and passion. That’s particularly true with dance, and Our Last Tango is a beautifully unconventional documentary with a unique perspective.