in Criterion Month

Buena Vista Social Club (1999)

I’d planned on reviewing Lynne Ramsay’s 1999 drama Ratcatcher for today. Unfortunately, the film isn’t on streaming or any online rental service that I’m aware of, so I needed a backup. Why did I gravitate to Wim Wender’s 1999 music documentary Buena Vista Social Club? I don’t know. Maybe because it was convenient. Or maybe It was the island rhythms I could feel percolating from within. Let’s find out.

In 1996, British world music producer Nick Gold invited legendary American blues-rock guitarist Ry Cooder to record sessions in Havana with a group of Mali and Cuban musicians. With the Mali musicians unable to obtain visas—Cooder himself had to travel from Mexico—the project pivoted to capturing the sounds of the greatest living Cuban son musicians. “Son” is a Cuban genre of music that blends folk and traditional dance music. Wim Wenders filmed these sessions and assembled them with interviews and concert footage into the documentary the Buena Vista Social Club, which would also stand as the name of the ensemble

The film follows the smoky-voiced Ry Cooder and his son, percussionist Joachim Cooder, as they meet and perform with the forgotten greats of the Cuban Son music scene. Cooder mostly takes a backseat to these meetings remaining quiet and listening closely to the stories of these musical talents. Such talents include; singer Ibrahim “the Nat King Cole of Cuba” Ferrier, pianist Rubén González, singer Omara Portuondo, guitarist Eliades Ochoa, bassist Orlando “Cachaito” López, singer Manuel “Puntillita” Licea, laúdist Barbarito Torres and many more.

My favorite subject in the film is the 90-year-old singer and tres player Francisco Repilado aka Compay Segundo, who films all of his scenes chomping on a cigar and dressed in what looks a 1940s zoot suit. Compay Segundo, like many others in the film, reflects on his humble beginnings, the vibrant music scene of his youth, and the hard years that followed. It’s a recurring theme in the film that although many of these musicians were revered in their glory days, they faded into obscurity as they had trouble finding exposure outside of Cuba.

Throughout the film, Cooder debates whether any of these artists would be able to make an impact outside of Cuba. Those doubts are put to bed after the recording of the album when the group books two shows, one in Amsterdam and the other at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York. From here we cut from song to a profile of each member, to song, to profile, gaining both an appreciation for the music and the people behind them.

Buena Vista Social Club is a typical concert film. What makes it special is its focus on a region and people overlooked in the world music scene. As an American who knows little of what Cuba is like its fascinating to see these colorful characters living in a land that appears both idyllic and ravaged by poverty. All the old buildings and cars and even fashion make watching the film akin to traveling back to the ‘40s or ‘50s.

Something poignant about the film is that Cooder points out that it’s important to listen to the music and stories of these musicians and appreciate them while they’re still with us. It’s poignant now because many of the musicians in this film passed on less than a decade after the film. Some even a year or two later. Regardless their music will live on because of the album they recorded and the film Wim Wenders made. If you like music documentaries this is one of the greats. Muy Bueno.