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TV REVIEW : A Tribute to Caffe Lena

All you Hollywood would-be bohos at the Onyx and the Java and other local coffeehouses would do well to take a break from the poetry books tonight and watch “Caffe Lena,” a one-hour documentary about an early, influential coffeehouse, airing on KCET Channel 28 at 10. The performers and patrons may be a bit gray these days, and the music may be lacking in the hip irony we associate with such locales today. But this could well be you in 30 years.

The show is really less the story of Caffe Lena than a memorial to its matriarch and namesake, Lena Spencer, who died in 1989. Opening the small Saratoga Springs, N.Y., hangout and theater in 1960, Spencer nurtured such notables as Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie and Spalding Gray in their artistic Wonder Years.

Singer Kate McGarrigle hosts the show, and with her sister Anna provides two of several generous performance highlights. Guthrie, David Bromberg and others are also seen and heard performing at a memorial concert, though non-musical Gray tops them all with a typically, amusingly detailed monologue about the early days at the Caffe.

Too bad the film wasn’t made before Spencer died. As it is, it’s a lovingly shot and assembled tribute, long on anecdotes from family and friends who paint Spencer as a charming eccentric, but short on Lena herself. She’s only seen in a few old still photos and one local TV interview segment. The film also fails to draw connections to the social fabric from which this and many other coffeehouses sprang.

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Still, a message comes through the portrait of the unique Lena and her Caffe that should be noted by all her spiritual children: It’s not enough to just be where something is happening; you’ve got to make something happen.


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