BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB(director/writer: Wim Wenders; cinematographer: Jorg Widmer; editor: Brian Johnson; cast: Compay Segundo, Eliades Ochoa, Ry Cooder, Joachim Cooder, Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez, Barbarito Torres, Omara Portuondo, Julio Alberto Fernández, Pío Leyva; Runtime: 104; Artisan Entertainment; 1999-Ger.)
“Can such music make a dilapidated Cuba bearable?”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Wim Wenders (The End of Violence, Paris, Texas, Lisbon Story) made this very touching documentary in collaboration with guitarist Ry Cooder, who had found the aging musicians in the Cuba of 1996. They were musicians neglected after Castro came to power and who were difficult to locate. They range in age from the 60’s-to-the-90’s. They play the same music they recorded in the ’40s and ’50s. The Buena Vista Social Club is also the name of an album the 14 Cuban musicians recorded that became such a hit, that it sold a million copies and also won a Grammy. The movie is a mixture of their music, lifestyles, and an apolitical peek at an impoverished Havana. It is done in a wonderfully nostalgic manner, as Wenders proves himself to be an admiring fan of theirs, allowing us to see how humble and human these most talented musical souls are.
We start out at their 2 day concert in Amsterdam, then go back to Havana and see them free associate in an interview and each tell something candid about themselves in their biography, and then we go to their grand finale concert in Carnegie Hall, New York.
Wenders has done a good job highlighting them though I would have liked to have seen more of their music as performed in Carnegie Hall, instead of seeing an overabundance of shots showing how well they were received there and how appreciative they were of that rousing welcome.
Ibrahim Ferrer is the mellifluous sounding 70-year-old singer, who was shining shoes all these years before being part of Cooder’s tremendous coup. “If we followed the way of possessions,” he says, “we’d have been gone a long time ago.” He has faith in a walking stick his dead mother left him some 50 years ago, as a source of luck. The 92-year-old cigar factory roller and cigar smoking guitarist, Compay Segundo, tries unsuccessfully but with some amusement to find where the Club they once played in existed. Segundo boasts of being the father of five and playfully says he still hopes to sire a sixth child. Tearful joy fills the eyes of the 69-year-old Omara Portuondo as she sings the bolero Silencia in a duet with Ferrer, which takes place in a recording studio. Ruben Gonzalez, the 77-year-old, who some in the group think might be one of the very best pianists in the world rises to the challenge in Carnegie Hall while smiling effusively with a warm glow covering him as he basks in the applause he receives. He didn’t even own a piano before the film was made. Barbarito Torres, who is much younger than the others, plays his unique 12-string lutelike Arabian instrument called the laud, while the camera records the decaying paint on the seaside buildings and the sensual music played recalls a grand past that no longer exists.
Can such music make a dilapidated Cuba bearable? It sure seems that way, as there is a consuming joy that sweeps across those who come into contact with these naive but friendly souls. Their genuine camaraderie for each other and love of country and gentleness, shines through as much as all the wonderful music they play.
In Carnegie Hall, they sing that lively song entitled “El Cuarto de Tula”, with the words: “Fire! Fire! I’m burning up. Call the fireman! Tula’s room is all ablaze!” Wenders follows three of the group into Manhattan catching them as they look up at the tall buildings in awe and gravitate to a tacky souvenir store where there are celebrities and U.S. presidents as statues. The childlike musicians are having the time of their life, wandering down Seventh Avenue and feeling so elated at seeing the Radio City Music Hall. They tell each other, it doesn’t get any better than this.
I wonder how much longer Castro’s Communist Revolution will go on! It’s an obvious failure, as even these great musicians were not recognized by the Cuban government — it took an outsider to do it. Near the film’s end, the camera pans back to Havana and a banner proclaims “We believe in dreams.”
REVIEWED ON 8/16/99 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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