July 12, 2024

Buena Vista Social Club (1999, dir. Wim Wenders)

Buena Vista Social Club is a joyful documentary of what one participant accurately deems “a crucially important event in the tradition of Cuban music.” For anyone who knows and love the critically acclaimed and enormously best-selling album of the same name, Wim Wenders’ behind-the-scenes film provides access to further rejoicing and deeper appreciation, and for newcomers to this extraordinary act of cultural conservation, it will serve as a seductive introduction to the music itself. Wenders is the noted international director best known for this film, Wings of Desire, Until the End of the World, and The Salt of the Earth. Buena Vista earned both Academy Award and BAFTA nominations and won a number of international film awards including The National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics, the Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle Film Critics, the German and Norwegian Film Awards, and Edinburgh International Festival.

In the 1970s musician Ry Cooder and his wife sojourned in Cuba, where he discovered what was to become a lasting affinity for the island’s traditional regional music. Amid the superimposed austerity of a new Marxist regime awkwardly fitted to the creole nation, Cooder sought the true pulse of the native cultural temperament. He found it, albeit languishing and isolated, in Cuba’s uniquely felicitous musical hybridization of European troubadour, western African, and Moorish influences. Here and there, in hole-in-the-wall clubs, he would come upon one of the great masters of a 300-year tradition which had last invigorated itself for a major run of glory days from the 1920s through the ’50s. Cooder was acutely aware that this gorgeous and important music was in peril of being lost to the cultural exigencies of Castro’s brave new world. State radio had little use for “decadent” art—and the old masters had no proteges. “But,” says Cooder in the film, “I didn’t know what to do about it.”

Twenty years later, Cooder did know what to do. At the urging of record mogul Nick Gold who knew of his frustrated passion, Cooder became our man in Havana. In 1996 he returned to Cuba, gathered from retirement, near obscurity, and humble circumstances an unprecedented ensemble of the old legends (now aged 70 to 90) including Compay Segundo, Omaro Portoundo, and Ruben Gonzalez. Together they recorded the album as “Buena Vista Social Club.” The Grammy Award winner remains the best-selling world music album to date and led to several spin-offs, including lead vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer’s superb eponymous album.

Without being ponderous, Wenders’ tone is deeply respectful. The Buena Vista Social Club project was indeed a once-in-a-century musical salvaging, celebration, and resuscitation of a tradition. In his choice of desaturated color and sepia filters, Wenders captures the faded grandeur and graciousness of Havana and makes the viewer poignantly aware just how imperiled with extinction was the cultural flame of this music. The cinematography of Jorg Widmer (The Tree of Life, Babel) melds the beauty and grit into a richly palpable texture spiked with unforgettable performances. There is background footage of the once-grand architecture of the city, the brashly ’60s-shoebox tower of the Karl Marx Hotel with one of its giant marquee letters missing, a faded and scruffy sign that reads “The Revolution is Eternal”, row upon row of parked cars from the late ’50s, and the uneasy atmosphere of a vital sense of place that has become confused, estranged from its own moorings. (Author Martin Cruz Smith has said that during the months he spent there that his feelings for the city were those “of a gentleman for a lady in distress.”)

The documentary evokes both a satisfying thrill of restoration and a strong sense of privileged witness. Time will reveal how the mixed legacy of Cuba’s experiment with communism continues to shape it and, now that the U.S. has normalized relations with Cuba, how foreign investment will present the island nation a new set of challenges to its cultural traditions as well as economic opportunities for its citizens. Havana could see a new golden era—like its heydays of exotic glamour in the ‘30s-‘50s—or it could succumb to urban homogenization. However her people may escort the “lady in distress” onward into the new millennium, we see in this glorious documentary the revival of an honorable cultural tradition in which life and art are passionately inseparable.

The performers in Buena Vista Social Club are the key to its triumph. They have tremendous natural dignity and they are also having the time of their lives, a time, it is quite clear, they never thought to see. Whether caressing the tristesse of a lush ballad or sashaying through the riffs of a hot improvisation—from their coming together for the studio sessions to their big concert dates in the summer of 1998 in Amsterdam and at Carnegie Hall—we are consistently delighted by their humor, touched by their modesty, and dazzled by their talent and the sensuous vitality of their music.

– Hadley Hury



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