Documentary Carlos runs highs and lows in portrait of guitar god Santana
Carlos Santana performs at BottleRock Napa Valley Music Festival in Napa, California, on May 26, 2019. (Photo: AP)

A new documentary on rock icon Carlos Santana begins with the legendary philosopher-guitarist asking a simple question: "Do you believe in magic?"

"Magic. Not tricks — the flow of grace," he says.

You may be convinced you do a little less than 90 minutes later by director Rudy Valdez's intimate portrait of a man with a magical ability and a story told with few tricks.

Carlos is a traditional linear tale, tracing Santana's formative years in Tijuana, Mexico; his set at Woodstock; his relentless touring and dive into spirituality, climaxing with his triumphant 1999 Supernatural album.

There is the first known recording of a 19-year-old Santana in 1966 — already a guitar master with a familiar, blistering style — and one later in life in which he delights his children behind a couch with sock puppets.

But some of the most powerful images are several old home-made clips Santana made himself, alone at home just jamming.

Valdez uses various images almost like a collage to capture his subject — talk show clips, old concerts, and newly conducted interviews with the master, one at sundown with the icon beside a fire.

A highlight is watching Santana and his band play in the rain during 1982's Concert for the Americas in the Dominican Republic. Other directors might show a short clip and go, but Valdez lets it play long, a treat.

We see Santana grow up to a violinist father and a fierce mother, who became mesmerised by the blues-rock of Ray Charles, B B King, and Little Richard. He was pressing tortillas at a diner in San Francisco in the late 1960s — he calls the city a "vortex of newness" — and go to the Fillmore to listen to the Grateful Dead and Country Joe and the Fish.

His first royalty cheque was spent on a home and a refrigerator for mom, fulfilling a promise. "It's better than Grammys and Oscars and Heisman trophies. It feels better than anything," he says in the documentary.

The fall comes with the drugs and overindulgence. Shocked by the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, Santana decided he must choose between heroin or spiritual meditation. He picks the latter, dresses in white, eats healthy, turn to jazz, and decides to "surf the cosmos of imagination".

With enduring hits like Oye Como Va and Black Magic Woman, Santana was voted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, the first person of Hispanic heritage to be inducted.

Valdez shows real style illustrating that Santana's bands were far from stable when it came to its line-ups — he cleverly shows various singers belt out the same section of Black Magic Woman live — and captures Santana today watching an old concert he did with his late dad. "He's proud of me and I'm proud of him. And I miss him," he tells the camera.

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