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Buena Vista Social Club

Review by Eddie Cockrell
Posted 4 June 1999

  Directed by Wim Wenders

Starring Ry Cooder, Compay Segundo,
Ruben Gonzalez, Ibrahim Ferrer, Eliades Ochoa,
Omara Portuondo, Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal,
Orlando Lopez "Cachaito," Barbarito Torres,
Manuel "Puntillita" Licea, Raul Planes,
Felix Valoy, Richard Eques,
Maceo Rodriguez, and Joaquim Cooder

Nobody in Havana today seems to remember exactly where the legendary Buena Vista Social Club was, much less the people who played there, but that didn’t stop world music icon Ry Cooder from tracking down some of the key Cuban musicians under that banner and making a sexy, sinewy record of son, or popular, standards old and new which subsequently won the 1998 Grammy for Best Tropical Latin Performance. Cooder subsequently interested Wim Wenders -- for whom he’d composed the scores to Paris, Texas and The End of Violence -- to document the new sessions and subsequent concert performances in Amsterdam and New York City. The result is a shimmering Dolby triumph of passion over the clock, as these exuberant elders reminisce and perform in a stylized yet straight-ahead documentary that is Wenders’ most accessible work in the genre to date.

The occasion of the studio and interview material that comprises the bulk of the film was a recording session in March 1998 behind BVSC vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, whom Cooder calls "the Cuban Nat King Cole." During the course of these rehearsals, as they work through their repertoire and prepare for the concerts, "los superablos," or "The Super-Grandfathers," as they’ve come to be known in Cuba, emerge in laid-back interviews on colorful locations as still-feisty individuals: There’s 90-year-old guitarist Compay Segundo, who has five children and is confidently "working on the sixth"; showboating pianist Ruben Gonzalez (whose stage moves at 80 would put most contemporary bands to shame); Barbarito Torres, who in concert stops the show by playing the laud, or guitar, behind his back (and at 42 is the youngster of the group); and comically histrionic singer Manuel "Puntillita" Licea, who makes the most of a feature vocal that begins with the line "Tula’s bedroom’s gone up in flames."

Wisely, Wenders lets the music and the sprightly people who make it speak for themselves, although the director’s ongoing fascination with the urban environment is in top form as Joerg Widmer’s camera serenely cruises the dawn streets of Havana (actually filmed on their way in from the airport when the crew arrived) and circles the rehearsing musicians seductively. Cinematographer Robby Muller was in charge of the Amsterdam concert footage and long-time Wenders associate Lisa Rinzler followed the wide-eyed band through the streets of New York City with a digital Beta camera. The visual strategy of over-saturating the already vibrant Havana material and under-saturating the shadowy Dutch show combines with the shimmering Dolby SRD sound to create a warm world of creativity and joy.

Watching this celebration of spirit over time with these remarkable, eternally young musicians, the effect is not unlike the effects of the fabled Fountain of Youth (even those who don’t dance will begin to move a little -- this is some of the sexiest music on the planet). Wenders seems to be saying "Look, see? There’s no substitute for experience," and he’s refreshingly, inspiringly right.

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