When it comes to music, there are many styles and cultures: Mexican, Spanish, Portugese, etc. However, Cuban music seems to be for only certain tastes, and even sadder, the singular individuals who created it have become virtually forgotten. Thankfully, Wim Wenders’ 1999 influential documentary, Buena Vista Social Club, gives new life to these all-but-ancient musical talents and gives the recognition they extremely deserve. It is also a documentary of how music, in general, can be a lifelong desire and reason for living.
Wenders’ camera and the legendary Ry Cooper, along with his son Joachim, travel to Cuba to find and collaborate with the veteran talents to form the Buena Vista Social Club, bringing together a lively mix of cha-cha, mambo, bolero, and many other Latin American genres to create an album that eventually went on to win a Grammy, made the group an instant phenomenon, and also brought them unexpected, but much needed worldwide fame. Through the mixture of personal and revealing interviews, you’re introduced to an array of amazing talents, including graceful voiced Ibrahim Ferrer and piano whiz Ruben Gonzalez, and the more you get to know these people, the more you fall in love with them. This leads to two final, sold-out concerts in Amsterdam and New York City, and millions of applause, acclaim, and legions of devoted fans.
What makes this illuminating documentary a standout amongst others is that Wenders doesn’t focus on the how, who, where, why, that many other docs succumb to. Instead, he spotlights the band and gives each of the performers a chance to shine, and this comes through quite well. My favorite sequence comes near the end, where they arrive in New York City for the concert; they explore and get the overall feel of it. You get their amazement and sense of freedom, especially for the fact that many of them were there for the first time.
When it comes home entertainment, the folks at Criterion, as usual, come out on top, giving the film new life on DVD and Blu-ray. The picture could have been better, but with they had to work with, Criterion did the best they could. I think Wenders shot the film the that way he did for a reason, especially to bring as much reality and authenticity as possible.
The revealing supplements include:
- Audio commentary from 1999 featuring Wenders
- New interview with Wenders
- Interview from 1998 with musician Compay Segundo on his career and the world of Cuban music
- Radio interviews from 2000 featuring musicians Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez, Eliades Ochoa, Omara Portuondo, and others
- Additional scenes
Rounding out the release is a great new essay by author and geographer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.
I have to say that I haven’t exactly found a more joyful, but important document of a culture so throughly aware of its musical influence. I hope that one day more and more people will realize how powerful it truly is and embrace it as a work that deserves more praise than it already has. Enjoy the music!