[Originally published in Eugene Weekly, 1999, reprinted for the DVD new rerelease]
In 1996 composer, producer, and guitar legend Ry Cooder entered Egrem Studios in Havana with the forgotten greats of Cuban music, many of them in their 60s and 70s, some of them long since retired. The resulting album, “The Buena Vista Social Club” (named after a once great but long since defunct Havana music hall) became a Grammy winning international bestseller, bringing this exciting, percussive music to the world, and more importantly bringing it back to Cuba. The album turned the spotlight on long neglected artists and revived dead or defunct careers. In 1998 Cooder returned to Havana to record a solo album by 72 year old vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer (“the Cuban Nat King Cole,” according to Cooder) and as he reassembled his master class of musicians, filmmaker Wim Wenders was on hand to document the occasion.
Wenders splits the film between portraits of the performers, who tell their stories directly to the camera as Wenders wanders the streets and neighborhoods of Havana, and a celebration of the music heard in performance scenes in the studio, in their first concert in Amsterdam, and in their second and final concert at Carnegie Hall. There are some terrific stories in the film. Ibrahim Ferrer, once a major vocalist, was making his living shining shoes when Cooder tracked him down for the album. 80 year old pianist Ruben Gonzalez hadn’t played in ten years and insisted that arthritis prevented him from taking it back up (his subsequent performances dispels that statement immediately). Guitarist/singer Compay Segundo is a father of five at 92 and isn’t giving up hope for a sixth. The way Wenders intercuts their stories with spotlight concert performances gives the audience a taste of their art before introducing the person behind the performer, then concludes with their spotlight performance in concert. The music is marvelous on its own, but the background enriches our experience of the performance.
As if to give texture to the film, which was shot on video and blown up to 35mm for theatrical release, Wenders tweaks the images for different scenes: burning, over-exposed colors for the Havana sequences, a desaturated, almost monochrome look for the Amsterdam concert, and warm hues for Carnegie Hall. It helps to create a visual variety for the film, but it’s ultimately unnecessary. It’s the music that enriches the film. If the audience isn’t roused by the performances then all the colors in the world aren’t going create interest.
It’s easy to see Wenders’ interest in the project. Music has been a central component of his films from his first feature Summer in the City (named for the song by the Lovin’ Spoonful) and musicians, from rockers Nick Cave and Lou Reed to the Portuguese acoustic group Madredeus, have played key parts in his movies. The opportunity to create a portrait of these vital old men must have been irresistible and Wenders makes his presence practically invisible, as if his directorial flourishes or off-screen narration might deflect attention from the artists. Ry Cooder was a vital collaborator on two of his American features, Paris, Texas and The End of Violence, and in some ways this film is a tribute to the efforts of Cooder, a vital roots rocker with a love of world music, but ultimately he becomes just one of the players (perhaps the ultimate compliment, considering the company he’s in).
There’s another aspect that makes this an ideal project for Wenders. Here is an American guitarist/producer working with a group of Cuban musicians, making music that transcends borders. Wenders doesn’t address politics—from the portrait of Cuba in this film you’d never know of an American embargo and the Communist government is only tangentially referred to—but instead gives us the culture of the country. As in the best of Wenders’ recent films about the global community, Buena Vista Social Club celebrates the beauty of Cuba’s art while showing how it effortlessly crosses cultures.
Directed by Wim Wenders. Produced by Ulrich Felsberg and Deepak Nayar. Cinematography, Joerg Widmer, Robby Mueller, Lisa Renzler. Editor, Brian Johnson. Starring Ry Cooder, Compay Segundo, Ruben Gonzalez, Ibrahim Ferrer, and Eliades Ochoa. With Omara Portuondo, Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal, Orlando Lopez “Cachaito,” Barbarito Torres, Manuel “Puntillita” Licea, Raul Planes, Felix Valoy, Richard Eques, Maceo Rodriguez, Joaquim Cooder. A Road Movies Filmproduktion production. Artisan.