Original release: February 17th, 1999
Running time: 105 minutes
Original language: English / Spanish
Director: Wim Wenders
Writers: Wim Wenders, Nick Gold
As far as music documentaries go, they’ve always been a great way to learn something new about a particular artist or genre. They can open us up something we probably wouldn’t have experienced before and this is particularly true of Buena Vista Social Club.
Directed by Wim Wenders, it focuses on the lives of a group of aging but legendary Cuban musicians – some as old as their nineties – whose talents have all but been forgotten after Fidel Castro’s takeover of the country. They film follows them as they’re brought out of retirement by Ry Cooder, an American guitarist, singer, composer and a long-time friend of Wenders who wants them to record an album together as a means of recapturing the “lost” music of pre-revolutionary Havana.
As Ry meets with them and brings them together, the film includes many exhilarating and extraordinary performances as the musicians resurrect not only their careers, but also their passion for a lifelong craft.
Set against the backdrop of Havana both old and new, Buena Vista Social Club comes across as a documentary film that’s too big to experience on a small screen. The scenery, together with the energy and passion of these performers makes the film comes alive and it’s virtually impossible not to get swept up in the rhythm that’s pulling us along.
At the heart of it though are the performers and Wenders captures them beautifully here together with footage from their concerts in Amsterdam and New York City’s Carnegie Hall. The focus is not just on their music, but their also lives as they look back on a time that can never be recaptured.
There are many great moments, such as when Wenders takes us to the Conservatory and we see pianist Ruben Gonzalez rehearsing surrounded by children. Later on he takes us to the Egrem Recording Studio where Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo are recording a beautiful bolero, Silencio, while looking into each other’s eyes. The scene is soulful and filled with longing and beauty.
The only thing I felt hampered my experience of the film was the presence of Ry Cooder and his son Joachim. Though they might be fine musicians in their own right, they seemed to be constantly getting in the way of the story being told and the music being played. As well as that I thought Ry’s slide guitar on many of the tracks featured in the film was unnecessary, almost as if he wanted Buena Vista Social Club to be more about him than the other folks.
Despite my feelings about him and Joachim being so prominently featured throughout, the film really belongs to performers like Ferrer and González and so many others who made this an unforgettable experience that’s stayed with me for so many years and inspired me to seek out more music from Cuba.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .