Buena Vista Social Club

(Wim Wenders, Germany/USA/UK/France/Cuba, 1999)


Many music lovers will need neither a recommendation nor a review for Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club. Since Ry Cooder began his project of unearthing the forgotten Cuban performers of an earlier era – including singer Ibrahim Ferrer and pianist Rubén González – this music has become wildly popular around the world.

The essential story of these musicians (the eldest, Compay Segundo, in his 90s) and their return to the spotlight is inherently fascinating. Wenders follows the troupe from the recording of Ferrer’s solo album in Havana to a series of international concerts.

The basic structure of the film is elegant and unforced. Each time, during a song, that the camera concentrates on a specific performer and his or her solo, Wenders jumps to a portrait of that person, in their own words. Nestled inside this form, however, is a secret, treasure-house of reflections and feelings that repays close, repeated viewing.

Buena Vista Social Club is a full-blooded attempt at making a true ‘music film’ – not a musical, where the songs are quarantined from the narrative; and not a concert movie, in the vein of Stop Making Sense (1984). Even categorising it as a music documentary (like Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, 1978) feels wrong, since much what we might conventionally expect to learn about these people and their country is deliberately missing.

It is a film about music in the richest and most complete way possible. Its structure, flow, rhythm and imagery are keyed at every point to the making of music, whether on a stage or in the street. Music appears in all its states and forms: improvised, rehearsed, off-hand, professional.

Wenders retains in his montage the magical or bemusing moments just before the beginning of a song – as crowds wait breathlessly in the auditoria of Amsterdam and New York – and just after.

As in Godard’s One Plus One (1970 – a film celebrated by Wenders when he was a young reviewer), we observe the intricacy of the studio recording process during the sessions with Ferrer: laying down tracks, mixing, listening to playback. The sight of Cooder – always inside himself, intensely concentrating on the sound – is a particular, privileged treat.

But Wenders’ grasp of this music goes way beyond his understandable fascination with audio technology. Singing and playing occur everywhere in the enchanted space circumscribed by the film. A lyrical highpoint show us González’ generous piano accompaniment to a small army of children practising ballet steps, callisthenics and fencing.

The visual style of the piece is superbly matched to its subject. Where the concert footage is caught in respectful, mainly static views, Wenders employs an endlessly circling, beautifully fluid steadicam for all the ‘everyday’ material – a “camera that is all ears”, he said of One Plus One. This evokes a world overflowing on all sides with music and its animating, life-giving force.

The great river of sound which the film evokes ultimately generates its deepest themes of time, history and memory. An early Wenders masterpiece, known in English as Kings of the Road (1976), is actually called In the Course of Time – and that title could fit again here. Music only lives, it is implied, in so far as it is transmitted from one person or generation to another (the presence of Cooder’s son Joachim serves this theme well).

Where a song comes from – its history and origin – is only important if it is revived, if it travels, if it enters new styles and situations. To suggest this, like Jim Jarmusch in the underrated Neil Young documentary Year of the Horse (1998 – surely an influence on this film), Wenders often daringly cuts between different performances of the same song.

Buena Vista Social Club, ultimately, is not an ode to nostalgia but a song of rebirth and renewal – clinched in the wonderful footage of these magnificent, old musicians hoofing around the New York they always dreamt of one day visiting.

Some viewers may be disappointed that the film – apart from a jokey, pre-credit anecdote about Fidel and Che playing golf – says little overtly about the history and social conditions of Cuba. Personally, I am glad that Wenders leaves these matters largely unspoken, implied only by occasional testimonies from his subjects about their lifestyles and biographies – for he tends to be at his worst as an artist when he preaches a political message.

Wenders modestly presents this documentary as a film for which he was “not responsible”. And certainly, the vital presence of these musicians, the immediate detail of their lives and personalities, would have been an abundant gift to any filmmaker.

But no one could have shaped this material with quite the skill and vision that Wenders, at his inspired best, brings. His master stroke is to structure the film around successive glimpses of two joyous, interlinked songs, “El Cuarto de Tula” and “Candela”, growing in intensity and culminating in images of Ferrer humble and amazed before the crowd’s applause.

It is exactly here that Wenders chooses to insert Ferrer’s heartbreaking tribute to the memory of his mother – and suddenly everything, time and music, fortune and family, life and history, reach a sublime union. Buena Vista Social Club is a perfect and entirely loveable film.

MORE Wenders: The Blues, The Brothers Skladanowsky, The End of Violence, Hammett, Land of Plenty, The Million Dollar Hotel, Paris, Texas, Alice in the Cities, Wings of Desire

© Adrian Martin December 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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